One of my favourite subjects at University was Constitutional Law which combines a study of the nuts and bolts of how our country works with a grand tour of the evolution of the body politic which is the United Kingdom
The long tale is full of episodes of the great struggles between King and Parliament, King and People, Catholic and Protestant as well as the hundreds of occasions when grave political impasses have been resolved by good old-fashioned British compromise and sound common sense. The latter often demonstrated how entrenched interests have known how and when to back away from a potentially visceral final confrontation.
Thus in our long history have we generally managed to avoid the great schisms of revolution and civil war. Of the former perhaps only the events of the mid to late 17th. Century qualify as such and the latter, in so far as it involved the populace as a whole, only the titanic struggle of King and Parliament in the 1640s qualifies. The so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ was not really a revolution as such, more a repair job after the disastrous and damaging reign of James II that largely confirmed the inclinations of Englishmen as to how they should be governed henceforth.
The great strength of our Constitution remains its evolutionary nature which is possible only because we do not have a single document called “The British Constitution”. We are thus able to take a very long view of the business of making a disparate nation run properly and if change is required it involves little more than a tweak here and a nudge there in order to make it work like a well-made large capacity motor that simply runs for ever.
Only occasionally is serious invasive surgery or amputation required or thought to be necessary: the Great Reform Act of 1832, The Parliament Acts 1911 & 1949, Irish Home Rule, votes for women and the final completion of universal adult suffrage, devolution, the exclusion of hereditary Peers from the House of Lords have been the irregular and infrequent tremors that have affected a Constitution that works remarkably well bearing in mind it is a work in progress of some one thousand years or so’s effort. In fact the general rule is: less is better.
As the ramifications of devolution become clear (and much as they were predicted by those once cast as so many Cassandras by Labour) it is evident that its course is not going to the plan which Labour had for it back in the 1990s when they saw it as a way of having their constitutional cake and eating it. They would run Scotland as a private fiefdom, pouring money into it so that more and more Scots could be enticed into the comfort zone of publicly funded jobs and thus into a junkie’s dependency on Labour at Westminster who, being the giver of all that is bountiful, control the purse strings upon which that bounty depends.
Hence not only would Scotland be Labour’s private plaything but also would provide a solid phalanx of compliant, not to say ovine MPs with which always to bolster a Labour Government at Westminster.
Now we see the fruits of that tawdry little piece of gerrymandering coming delightfully unravelled. The SNP booted Labour out of power in Scotland in May and has set out on a path of governing and spending that is not at all to Labour’s liking. Alex Salmond, First Minister in the Scottish Executive, is trying to spend as much as he can get his hands on in funding wonderful freebies for Scots of which English voters can only dream and is bleating for more now that Labour’s Lady Bountiful is turning somewhat into Scrooge.
This in turn excites English who rightly feel aggrieved at the driving of a Scots coach-and-four through the principle of ‘No Taxation Without Representation’ who have no control over how taxpayer’s money is spent North of the Border but have to endure continuing control of their spending by, inter alia, the 39 Scots MPs who push through legislation on Labour’s behalf at Westminster.
The proposal, to which I first adverted to back in May, is that legislation for England and Wales should be referred after second reading to a Grand Committee of English and Welsh MPs who would then take the matter through to a vote. The Bill would then be sent back to the floor of the House where it would, by Parliamentary and Constitutional Convention, be accorded an unopposed Third Reading and sent to the Lords. It would theoretically be possible for it to be voted down by Scots and Irish MPs, but any party that led such an attempt would almost certainly incur the righteous wrath of English electors who might well then choose to punish such a party by obliterating them at the next poll.
Such a proposal has the attraction of being extremely cheap to set up as it requires no new politicians to fill its seats and only a few extra parliamentary staff to keep it running smoothly. We need another layer of expense-grubbing politicians in this country like we need a hole in the head. It would be easy to operate and would provide a neat, nay elegant answer to Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian Question.
Of course Labour are up in arms at the idea and say it will not work and would create two classes of MP. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
David Cairns, the Scotland Office minister, warned thus:
“This proposal is utterly unworkable. Taken to its logical extent it would create multiple categories of MPs. Where does it end? Do the Tories think only London MPs should vote on Crossrail; only countryside MPs vote on foxhunting; only coastal MPs vote on fishing? It is utterly impracticable. Take the English smoking ban. This was proposed in clauses in a bill which applied to the whole of the UK. Would the Tories seriously take those clauses out into the Grand Committee for consideration?”
This should be seen for what it is: the bleat of a Scots Labour MP terrified that his party’s sway over England is up for the chop, no more and no less. As for the smoking ban issue, the Government will simply have to get used to drafting legislation more carefully and not using do-it-all Bills to pass this and that little policy which they have been used to doing up to now. It might even have the effect of making legislation as a whole better drafted which would be no bad thing.
The other whinge that they come up with is the allegation that it will create two classes of MP. That really is rich, given that there two classes of MP already exists: Scots MPs who can vote on any UK matter and English MPs who cannot. That division was foisted on the English by Labour’s Scotland Act 1998.
All that one needs to say to Labour is this:
As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
Meanwhile, one is cheered yet again to be ahead of the pack: 5 months to be exact.