Monday, 29 September 2014

After the Scottish Referendum, by David Lindsay

There is no West Lothian Question. The Parliament of the United Kingdom reserves the right to legislate supremely in any policy area for any part of the country. It never need do so and the point would still stand, since what matters is purely that it has that power in principle, which no one disputes that it has.

If an English Parliament, or “English votes for English laws”, would be so popular, then put it to a referendum of the people of England. It would pass in the South East, although I only suspect that, just as I only suspect that it would pass by far less in East Anglia and perhaps also in those parts of the South West that were not too far south and west.

Whereas I know with absolute certainty, as do you, that it would not obtain one third of the vote anywhere else, that it would not manage one quarter anywhere beyond the Mersey or the Humber (or, I expect, in Devon or Cornwall, either), and that it would not scrape one fifth in the North East, or in Cumbria, or, again, in Cornwall. If anyone doubts this, then bring on that referendum.

As for Labour’s needing Scottish MPs in order to win an overall majority, certain grandees of the commentariat need to be pensioned off, or at the very least to have their copy subjected to the most basic fact-checking by editorial staff.

In 1964, fully 50 years ago, MPs from Scotland delivered a Labour overall majority of four when there would otherwise have been a Conservative overall majority of one that would not have lasted a year.

In October 1974, MPs from Scotland turned what would have been a hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party into a Labour overall majority so tiny that it was lost in the course of that Parliament.

In 2010, MPs from Scotland turned what would have been a small Conservative overall majority into a hung Parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party and with David Cameron as Prime Minister, anyway.

On no other occasion since the War, if ever, have MPs from Scotland, as such, influenced the outcome of a General Election. In any case, with the Government committed to the Barnett Formula, there cannot be any such thing as exclusively English legislation, since it all has knock-on effects in Scotland and Wales. What “English laws”?

The grievance of England, and especially of Northern and Western England, concerns cold, hard cash. What, then, of those who bellow for an English Parliament to bartenders who cannot follow everyone else and leave the room? They fall into two categories. There are the Home Counties Home Rulers. And there are those wishing to live under the Raj of the Home Counties Home Rulers.

On the one hand are those from the South East, Essex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. Their definition of England is the South East, Essex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, or at least a certain idea of that area. Give them something for that, and they would be perfectly happy, at least until the votes started to be tallied up. Everyone gets a vote. Even the people whom they have bawled out.

On the other hand are those from everywhere else. Their definition of England is also the South East, Essex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, or at least a certain idea of that area. Although they are often professionally “local” to elsewhere, especially in Yorkshire but also in pockets of other parts of the country, the basis of their political position has always been that they were a cut above their neighbours.

That made them Conservatives until recently, and it increasingly makes them UKIP supporters. That is who the UKIP supporters in the North and elsewhere are. They were never Labour. That is also the context for the fact that there has been a UKIP MEP in Wales for some years and that there is now a UKIP MEP in Scotland, too.

They may never have elected an MP or even a councillor in their lives, or they may live in the only ward or constituency for miles around where their votes ever elected anyone. But enough MPs were returned from elsewhere to make Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister. That suited them down to the ground.

Quite wrongly, since it would be run by Labour as often as not, they see an English Parliament in the same terms. Their more numerous and concentrated brethren elsewhere would deliver them from the rule of their neighbours. It is very funny indeed that those brethren think that they are those neighbours.

In 1993, 66 Labour MPs voted against Maastricht, far more than the number of Conservatives who did so. Yet there were far more Conservative than Labour MPs at the time. Of those 66, at least three campaigned for a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum, including that campaign’s chairman, Dennis Canavan.

While it is true that several of those from Wales went on to be among the strongest opponents of devolution, the 66 also included the late John McWilliam, one of the first campaigners for a North East regional assembly.

So much for the dissolution of the United Kingdom as some kind of EU plot, and I write as an inveterate social democratic Eurosceptic and Unionist. If anything, the pressure for that dissolution is a reaction against the effects of Thatcher’s Single European Act, of Maastricht, and of the Stability Pact to which we are pretty much adhering despite not being in the euro. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership looms large.

If there is one group of people to be avoided at all costs, then it is the ones who go on about some EU map with England divided into regions. If anyone had paid any attention to them, then the toothless and Tyneside-dominated regional assembly would have been set up in the North East, purely and understandably in order to spite them.

City regions are what used to be called metropolitan counties, which Thatcher abolished because she did not like Ken Livingstone. No, that never did make any sense. But that was what she did. Similarly, many unitary authorities bear more than a passing resemblance to county boroughs. These things have to keep going around and coming around, in order to justify the salaries of the people who write the research papers.

But since city regions are now to be revived under that name, whatever powers are proposed for them must also extend to a body covering each of those 40 English ceremonial counties which are neither Greater London, nor the City of London, nor any of the former metropolitan counties.

In many cases, the obvious body already exists. Where it no longer does, then that raises the question of why it no longer does. And where, as here in County Durham, the legacy of the last Government is such as would leave that body unbalanced, with existing local government responsibilities for part but not quite all of its area, then that, too, would be called into question. Leading to the restoration of the former district councils.

This promise of significant devolution to rural communities might go some way to making up the support that Labour has been too lazy to build up during this Parliament by properly opposing cuts in those communities’ services, and by selecting strong local campaigning candidates, with or without prior party allegiance.

Whatever the conurbations are getting, as well they might, then so must the counties. The loyally Labour old coal and steel belts of County Durham, South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire are among the places that will need to be convinced that our, as often as not Conservative or Lib Dem, urban neighbours quite deserved all of this city regions carry on.

At the very least, we are not having the powers of our own local authorities transferred to them. In fact, since we are fairly populous, we may reasonably demand that whatever they got, then so should we. At least that money and those powers would always be under the control of members of Ed Miliband’s own party.

Will Devo Max really be opposed only by implacable Tory ultras? What about implacable Labour ultras? Or implacable Lib Dem ultras? Labour MPs for Scotland hold the Scottish Parliament in extremely low regard, and they did so even before it fell under the control of the SNP, as it did quite some time ago now.

Labour MPs for the North of England have spent an electoral generation voting powers to Scotland and to Europe, to Wales and to London, to Northern Ireland and to the judiciary, to everyone but themselves or their constituents. It is not as if Scotland has proved loyal to Labour in the way that the North very largely has.

All these years after devolution, Lib Dem MPs see that the Highlands and Islands are the only part of Scotland among the 11 parts of the United Kingdom that are poorer than Poland. Although Cornwall and Devon are both also on that list, as well as both being among those nine out of the 10 poorest parts of Northern Europe which are in this country.

Bringing us to the Barnett Formula, which has been elevated to the status of an article of the Constitution, but which in fact has never had any force of law. Lord Barnett has long been on record that it was only ever supposed to last for one year. It is an outrage against social democracy and even against basic justice, being not remotely needs-based.

The canonisation of the Barnett Formula imperils the Union by raising serious questions among the Welsh about why they should bother with a State that treated them so shabbily. Heaven knows, it does no good to the poorest people in Scotland. Their condition is as abject under Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon as is that of their counterparts under David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith.

Labour MPs for Wales and the North of England need to band together with Lib Dems for Wales and the West Country, and indeed for the North of Scotland, so that, perhaps even joined by Plaid Cymru and undoubtedly alongside all parties from Northern Ireland, they might propose a long-overdue replacement, based on need and organised through direct funding to localities without reference to the Nationalist nomenklatura in Scotland.

The areas of Scotland that would benefit most from such a new approach are those which suffer most as a result of the old one. Outside the rural Lib Dem strongholds, those are mostly the areas that return devosceptical Labour MPs to Westminster. As much as anything else, this offers the possibility of taking Holyrood seats from the SNP, by correctly presenting it as the party that hordes money away from the communities that need it.

Devo Max will pass. In order to force these concessions in the course of that Bill’s parliamentary progress, there should be 200 votes against it at Second Reading, perhaps even 250, and possibly even 300. There ought to be. But will there be? If not, why not?

The parts of the United Kingdom that are listed as one or both of poorer than Poland and among the 10 poorest places in Northern Europe are West Wales and the Welsh Valleys, Devon, Cornwall, Durham and the Tees Valley, Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire, Lancashire, Northern Ireland, East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, the Highlands and Islands, and Merseyside. There are of course many other very poor places in this country.

All MPs for those areas should vote against any legislation that would give the force of law to the Barnett Formula. Likewise, all MPs from the 40 shire counties of England, but perhaps especially from the old coal and steel belts, should vote against any extension of the powers of the Scottish Parliament without devolution not only to English MPs en bloc or to city regions, but also directly to those county areas.

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