Saturday, July 08, 2006

Questionable votes

Could a football tournament change the British constitution? Or at least, since we do not have the Americans’ privilege of a written constitution, could it lead to a new interpretation?

The question has its roots in the late seventies, when Jim Callaghan was trying to shore up his crumbling government with a sop to Scottish nationalism by proposing a form of devolution for Scotland. Tam Dalyell, then MP for West Lothian and an opponent of devolution, wanted to know whether, in the event the Bill was passed, a Scottish MP at Westminster would still be able to vote on matters that post devolution would affect only England. This innocent time bomb, known then and since as the West Lothian question, was dodged, the bill failed (partly thanks to some dodgy work on the rules for counting the votes) and there the matter rested until New Labour had another go. The new Bill passed and the Scottish parliament was created, housed in a boondoggle new building, and given powers in Scotland over matters that include education, health and transport. Tam Daylell retired with his question unanswered.

It is one of the defining characteristics of Tony Blair’s government that it makes policy in apparently simple terms and then enacts a mess. He promised reform of the House of Lords but still has not decided how to finish the job. He offered Scottish devolution but failed to answer the West Lothian question, either before or since the deed was done. Initially this was not critical: the government had a majority even without its 41 Scottish MPs and although few failed to notice the number of Scots in high office they had not achieved the influence they have now.

With the suddenness that can take even the most astute politicians by surprise the situation has changed. Blair is out of favour with his backbenchers, most of all with old Labour. He is trying to push through legislation on health and education that is unpopular with sections of his own party and he now has a home secretary, and secretaries for defence, transport and trade and industry, as well as his long standing chancellor, whose seats are in Scotland. Five out of 41 Scottish Labour MPs have cabinet posts. The other 16 cabinet members from the Commons come from the 353 Labour MPs representing England and Wales. Clearly preferment lies North of the border. Last and crucially Mr Blair is being urged to bring forward the day Gordon Brown moves geographically sideways and hierarchically upwards into Number 10. A Scottish premier, from a Scottish seat, is a prospect an increasing number of English seem likely to resent.

At the same time a Commons committee, with strong Labour representation, has reported that the question must be resolved, offering four options but no recommendation: a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster, an equivalent English assembly, Scottish MPs to be barred from voting in Westminster on matters that for Scotland are decided in Edinburgh, and full independence. The first is a fudge, a palliative that would only delay a proper solution and was done anyway when devolution came in. The second would require each part of the United Kingdom to have exactly the same powers for its own assembly or the central, federal, government would have four separate West Lothian questions hanging over its deliberations. This quite apart from having English affairs run by an even more second rate bunch of politicians than is the case now. The third is the correct answer, at least in the short term. It would also be simple to enact and has been used before, for Stormont. The last is the final solution, and tempting, with consequences and implications fascinating to speculate on. Would the immediate solution lead to the final one?

Now the World Cup is nearly over, England having qualified and Scotland not. Nothing is better calculated to bring out the traditional Scottish meanness of spirit towards a fellow member of the United Kingdom. Scottish but not British, they have been busily and ostentatiously supporting England’s opponents. Violence has been done to some who had the temerity to wear an England shirt and there is even a pub that offered a free round of drinks when England conceded a goal. For Mr Brown, recently anxious to stress his Britishness, since he cannot remotely claim to be in any way English, this poses a teasing variation of the question. Asked if he would be supporting England he gulped hard and said he would, doubtless alienating many Scots in the process. He even went to one of the matches. Nobody believed a word of it. The West Lothian question has achieved a new level of awareness to the man on the Clapham omnibus.

Now England are out and the respective fans either laughing or mourning. The Conservatives in England, increasing in numbers and confidence, will resent being held back by old Labour in Scotland and being defeated by them in the Commons on English affairs and are starting to push for an answer while Tony Blair talks illogically of second class MPs, hoping people won't notice that England already has them. In time, Scottish Labour will resent Prime Minister Brown continuing to pursue New Labour policies. It could be a defining moment.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Lies of the times

It’s time to update those well practised and well known mantras of officialdom and the untrustworthy: the cheque is in the post; a government spokesman said there was no cause for alarm; of course I’ll still respect you in the morning. The modern state and business practice have given us a rich new set to choose from.

Your call is important to us. Then why not answer the bloody phone and talk to me? This one is just an insult. Similarly,

Every little helps. Then how about opening another checkout?

For your own safety and security . . . Rubbish. It’s not you we care about, but if we put out inane announcements like this often enough we hope to have a defence when a negligence case comes to court.

Thank you for your co-operation. This is usually in company with a terse request to desist from some generally acceptable activity that mildly inconveniences the management. Often used in places where ‘we reserve the right to refuse admission’ and is thus really a threat not a thanks.

The prime minister said he had complete confidence in his minister. The prime minister might say this but the hapless minister hears the guillotine blade being hoisted. A token defence will be made, but only for as long as the embarrassment of the minister exceeds that of the premier. After that point, the chop, the pearl handled revolver or whatever New Labour uses instead – something messy for sure. The first to be subjected to this death by reassurance was Humphrey, number 10’s chief mouser, whom no-one could accuse of incompetence, but was retired, supposedly on health grounds, in 1997 and died at 18 the day before yesterday. Brought in as a stray during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure (I like to think it was she who named him), he did his job night and day right through John Major’s time only to be accused of causing an allergic reaction in the incoming chatelaine as New Labour took over our lives. A publicly posed photo of the two together tried to reassure the public but was the cuddle of dismissal for Humphrey.

This is about improving parent/patient/consumer choice. So just how many hospitals are there within a reasonable distance that I can visit, even by private transport, as an out-patient or be visited in if I have to stay there? On what basis other than government data or local gossip, a toss-up choice for reliability, would I choose between them? If the school I’m in the catchment area of is no good my child will certainly be low down the list in another area, whose school, if good, will inevitably be over subscribed. Can’t they see it’s not a matter of choice, but options. The only choice in many of these cases is whether to accept one’s fate or pay heavily to buy out of the state option – and thus acquire real choice.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The green, green grass of home

The Englishman has a strange relationship with his lawn and after years of studying it I have had to conclude I am not, in this respect at least, a typical Englishman.

You only have to look at the summer advertisements for lawn growth products, weed killer, and the rival types of mower (it’s a lot less bovver with a hover) to realise that we are dealing not with a chore but an obsession. My neighbour uses a cylinder mower and has cut little channels around the edges, between the lawn and his drive, so that the mower is not obstructed by any paving and can cut right up to the edge. The flower beds are sunk below the lawn for the same reason. My lawn merges seamlessly with the part of the garden in which things other than grass grow (actually, things other than grass grow freely on the lawn too) and the edge is defined by either how tough they are or how much of a bollocking I will get from SWMBO if I scythe too far off the main track. I use the word scythe figuratively here but there is a full size haymaker’s scythe in my garage that is brought out most years in the spring when a combination of wet weather, rapid growth and procrastination takes the grass to a height the mower can’t handle. From the scythed state I use the mower, blades set high, to reduce the grass to a level that on a golf course would count as light rough – short enough to find the ball but needing a solid stroke to get out of. My neighbour takes his down to a height that, as a putting green, would rate about twelve on the Stimp meter. My cuttings go in a pile in a corner and over time degenerate into first class compost and get recycled. His go into a black bag and are put out with the rest of the trash, adding to my council tax. This last is a habit of modern suburban man that I despise as much as car washing with chemicals in the street. The water and soap go into the storm drain, thence to the river and are pumped back onto the fields and thus into our cereals, vegetables and milk. And do Friends of the Earth care? Not that I have ever heard of. They are more interested in fatuous schemes for generating electricity by covering the landscape in 100 metre high rotating aerofoils that are a danger to low flying aircraft and likely to be unproductive when most needed. But I digress, as usual.

The obsession with neatness of lawn is undoubtedly a bourgeois thing. It seems to infect those who have not enough grass to justify a self-propelled, sit-on mower, a trapping that those who have one, whether justified by much lawn or not, are only too happy to boast about, and is part of a strange compulsion to keep the garden tidy, along with tidying up the leaves in autumn, should trees that shed leaves be allowed to grow. The aristocracy, if Nancy Mitford is to be believed, are free of such chores, as modern politicians are of so many of life’s little obligations and petty problems, such as paying council tax or where to park at work. In The Pursuit of Love she observes: ‘gardens . . . a topic which was unknown at Alconleigh. The gardener saw to the garden and that was that. It was quite half a mile from the house, and nobody went near it, except as a little walk sometimes in the summer’.

I fall between the two. I have no enthusiasm for gardening and don’t have enough lawn to justify a sit-on mower but I can’t stop a sneaking admiration for someone like the Manchester City FC groundsman and his crop circle-like patterns. He must be from another planet though. That sort of enthusiasm for mowing ain't natural.