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.