Devolution for Scotland was a carefully calculated political act designed to enable Labour to be best placed to retain power in the whole of the United Kingdom. They feared that one day Scots might seek independence. This would be a disaster for Labour in the context of the United Kingdom for its almost guaranteed chunk of forty-odd seats forms the spine of its parliamentary majority in the House of Commons. In many elections it makes the difference between having and not having a majority in Parliament.
In order to protect that majority Labour suddenly discovered the ‘virtues’ of devolution, namely the creation of a Scottish Parliament to replace Westminster as the principal law-making body in Scotland. They believed that in this way they could gerrymander the constitution.
Firstly they would have a Scottish Parliament in which, as they had been since the 1950s, they would always have the majority of seats, enabling them always to be the senior partner at the least in any coalition.
Secondly they would maintain a huge compliant bloc of Labour MPs from Scotland at Westminster as lobby fodder to get its legislation through Parliament, in particular measures which only affect England & Wales.
In short, Labour would have its Constitutional cake and eat it. Thus it has been able, for example, to ram through student tuition fees in England on the back of its in-built Scots majority. Meanwhile a Labour-led coalition was able for ten years to keep its grip on Scotland, not least through the operation of the Barnett Formula which generously favours Scotland at the expense of the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of the amount of public money allocated to it.
Devolution was supposed to kill nationalism and the call for independence stone dead. Labour has discovered, however, that even the best-planned gerrymander can go wrong in this largest of all the Rotten Boroughs. Instead of a compliant poodle there has arisen a two-headed monster which it is struggling to keep in check.
One head is the smug grinning face of Alex Salmond, SNP First Minister of a minority SNP Executive. He has overthrown Labour’s assumption that it would, for ever and a day, dominate Scottish politics and power. In so doing he has raised the spectre of independence far higher than it ever was without devolution. So it has suddenly discovered that, though the prospect is as yet still distant, its huge parliamentary advantage is under threat in a way that it never would have been had we never had devolution. They are well and truly hoist with their own petard.
The second head is that of the angry English Taxpayer who sees Scotland being advantaged fiscally in circumstances where he cannot exercise any degree of electoral control over that process. Meanwhile Labour’s Scottish bloc is used day in and day out to sustain Labour in power at Westminster, voting on exclusively English affairs in circumstances where English MPs cannot vote on the same matters as they affect Scotland. Indeed, given that huge swathes of Scottish affairs are now devolved, Scottish MPs spend a large part of their time voting on matters which do not affect their constituents one whit.
Even Labour’s English MPs are beginning to understand English anger at this gerrymandered arrangement. The anger is genuine, not least because what is called the “West Lothian Question” is routinely dismissed by Labour who make it clear they are not prepared to countenance any loosening of their Scottish grip, however unfair that may be, on the levers of power in England. Lord Irvine, former Labour Lord Chancellor arrogantly says that the way to deal with the “West Lothian Question” is not to ask it. That sums up Labour’s attitude to democracy in this country: treat it and those who espouse the free and fair exercise of democracy with contempt.
But they are beginning to discover that the question will not go away: indeed free-born Englishmen are beginning to think of this taxation without representation as a form of Labour Tyranny. And suddenly the Tyrants themselves are beginning feel the clammy hand of fear wrapping itself around their rotten undemocratic hearts.
I am surprised, therefore, that only The Scotsman has carried this story which emphasises just how worried Scots Labour MPs have become at how matters have played out since 1997 and in particular, since May 2007 when the SNP elbowed them aside from power. Unsurprisingly their plan involves yet another gerrymander.
It will be recalled that that fat tub of lard John Prescott tried to force English regions into having ‘regional assemblies’. This particularly appalling idea was resoundingly stopped dead in its tracks by the good burghers of the North-east who recognised the idea as the complete nonsense that it was by rejecting it by a considerable majority. Now, however, Scots Labour MPs who have no mandate whatsoever for the idea wish to resurrect the idea of regional assemblies for England as a means, they candidly admit, of appeasing English anger at the “West Lothian Question” and the Barnett Formula upon which they hope to maintain the electoral advantage these two things give them at a national level.
Thus Ian Davidson, the Labour MP for Glasgow South West:
“I think the proposals that we had before for regional assemblies seemed to me to be a way forward.
“The ‘English votes for English issues’ proposal is a recipe for some degree of chaos. We should be looking for some way of devolving power to the English regions. The first time we had a referendum for the Scottish Parliament, we didn’t get it – so just because the referendum in the north-east [of England] went against the plan, it doesn’t mean it should be rejected completely.
“I also think the time is right for a review of financing across the various areas of the UK. The present arrangements are particularly bad for the north-east and north-west of England. I would not be unhappy to see that formula re-examined.”
There you have a chilling reminder of how the European Union does business: if the people are consulted by referendum and they get the “wrong” answer to the question, keep on asking the question until they get the “right” answer. That is how Labour does business.
Or take this offering from David Hamilton, the Labour MP for Midlothian:
“I understand the frustrations people have, but this has to be a long-term solution. We need to sit down and talk right through this to come up with a solution which will stand the test of time.
“I do not believe you can play around with the constitution – you can’t put sticking plasters on it. In the long term, England needs to be devolved and to develop its own strategy and the [UK] parliament then covers the four nations’ parliaments. It will take time.
“There is no way you can dilute the voting rights of any MPs, as [Tory MP] Malcolm Rifkind wants to do. This is not a Scottish problem; it’s a UK problem, and there is no simple, easy answer.”
“I would do away with the House of Lords and put the English Parliament in there; then we [in the Commons] would become the reforming Parliament for the UK.
The arrogance of this is quite spectacularly breath-taking: this is an MP who has absolutely no mandate from a single English voter saying that “England needs to be devolved”. And for a Scots Labour MP to opine, as he does, that he does not believe “you can play around with the constitution” is as gross a piece of humbuggery as you could wish for from a party that has been playing fast and very loose with our constitution from the moment it got into power.
So, England Awake!
MPs in another part of the United Kingdom, who have no mandate to do so and who are utterly unaccountable to a single English voter are beginning to plan how to maintain the gerrymander that is represented by the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula by proposing changes to English Constitutional arrangements. This is a considerable outrage which must be resisted.
I strongly recommend the article to you as it contains an interesting additional article by Tam Dalyell on the origins of the “West Lothian Question” and how this sobriquet came to be applied to it by that master of sniffing out the logical consequences of events, Enoch Powell.