A Hopeless Way to Run a Country

Ross McKibbin

The speed with which David Cameron has turned the victory of No into the West Lothian question is not surprising in a man who is both an opportunist and partisan, and who is concerned to protect his own leadership. But Ed Milband is right to resist Cameron’s rushed attempts to exploit promises made to Scotland, which almost certainly need never have been made, to justify legislation that would allow only English MPs to vote on ‘English’ measures (however they might be defined). Such a proposal is wrong for two reasons.

First, it is wrong in principle to introduce such important constitutional changes in a matter of weeks. No better, in fact, than Salmond’s attempts to rush Scotland into independence without any idea how independence might work. Second, such legislation would fundamentally destabilise British government. It could create a situation in which a government that possesses the confidence of the House of Commons might be unable to pass the bulk of its legislation. That is what the Tories want, on the assumption that they would normally make up a majority of English MPs, but it is a hopeless way to run a country. English votes for English legislation could only work politically if Scotland did indeed leave the Union (and probably Wales and Northern Ireland as well). As a matter of political logic, the Tories should have favoured a Scottish Yes vote. You cannot want Scotland to remain within the Union and have English votes for English legislation. The political system is simply too inflexible to allow it.

Scotland’s continued membership of the Union would be compatible with English votes for English legislation only if the House of Commons were elected by some form of proportional representation. That would at least diminish the chances of a situation in which a blocking majority of English MPs was able to render helpless a British government dependent on Scottish MPs. This makes the folly of the Blair and Brown governments in ignoring electoral reform even more obvious. They were warned often enough that all this – English votes for English legislation – was a possibility, but chose the easy way out in the belief that the elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005 were the norm.

Furthermore, the argument that we can have English votes for English legislation rests on the assumption that the Kingdom of England is socially and economically homogeneous. But it is not. It is highly diverse, and its different parts have different needs. If Scottish MPs should not be able to vote on English issues, why should Surrey MPs vote on legislation which would harm, say, Durham and Northumberland (as they regularly do)? In fact, one reason that Parliamentary legislation is not more harmful to the North of England under a Conservative government is that Scottish MPs can vote on English matters. Without them Conservative governments could do their worst with comparative impunity. Miliband is right to insist that if there is to be constitutional reform it should be carefully considered and not just a Tory ramp. As it stands, in the absence of a reform of voting procedures, the present constitutional structure of the United Kingdom is probably the one that works best.


  • 23 September 2014 at 10:18am
    Robin Kinross says:
    "the present constitutional structure of the United Kingdom is probably the one that works best"? But it is hardly working at all.

    Scotland, with its parliament, is already half way to independence. In the light of the present, developing muddle, it would have been better to have the job of independence completed with the vote last week. The very badly needed reform of Westminster (second chamber, voting system, even the very layout of the House of Commons) would have been hastened. Now it feels as if Scotland will have to wait another few years – much less than a generation – before the ineluctable breaking of the Union happens.

    It's not fair to speak of "Salmond’s attempts to rush Scotland into independence without any idea how independence might work". Alex Salmond's first wish was for enhanced devolution: all Scottish tax powers with Scotland (and the Scottish government will probably now demand this in the present discussion over further powers). David Cameron ruled that out as a question on the ballot paper, insisting on a simple yes / no. The chancer Salmond then just went for it, gaining in return some significant concessions from Cameron (a long campaign period, extension of the franchise to 16–17 year-olds). The SNP Scottish Government did back up its case for Yes with detailed plans. But you can only go so far with a negotiating partner that refuses to discuss.

    85 per cent of the eligible population turned out to vote.

    The idea of Scottish independence for British Nationalists at Westminster and elsewhere in England is terrifying, deeply insulting, and hardly conceivable – witness the absolute panic after the poll that suggested the Yes campaign might win. The UK government position was just No: "over our dead bodies".

    The gamble of the Scottish government was that after a Yes, and a day or two of turbulence on the stock markets and currency exchanges, then the UK government would have become a willing negotiator. A reasonable settlement would have been reached.

  • 24 September 2014 at 2:09am
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    I don't think it's fair to say 'the chancer Salmond then just went for it'. The SNP's manifesto pledge obliged them to press for the referendum so they could hardly refuse to hold a straight yes/no vote. Salmond as you say made the best job of it. If he's a chancer then I want a few of his tips.

    • 24 September 2014 at 1:58pm
      Robin Kinross says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      Yes, 'chancer' isn't quite right for Alex Salmond. He's certainly a risk-taker, not just for the hell of it, but with some well calculated aim in sight. I'd much rather have him than any of the leaders of the parties in London.

  • 24 September 2014 at 8:26pm
    streetsj says:
    I really think Ross McK is wrong in almost every part of this post. Not from a political point of view but a logical one.

    Why would the bulk of a government's programme be solely concerned with English legislation? And if it was, why should it be able to pass it if it has no majority in England.

    To argue that England is not homogenous therefore you shouldn't have "English" votes is to miss the rather critical point that Scotland (or indeed most other places) are not homogenous.

    Nor is it rational to say that English votes only make sense if Scotland left the union: what the West Lothian question posits is simple symmetry. Where a proposed law does not impact a member's constituency because that jurisdiction has been devolved, then the member shd have no say.

    To describe Cameron as partisan and then write his last paragraph is like Thatcher calling the head porter authoritarian.