Sunday, October 28, 2007

Time for a federal UK?

Almost 30 years after Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for West Lothian, asked his question regarding the justness of non-English MPs voting on issues affecting England when MPs in England do not have such powers in other areas of the UK, is it now the time to ask if the anachronistic constitutional construct that is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should be changed?

There have been many adjustments in the last decade within the existing Union, namely the passing of the Scotland Act in 1998, the establishment of an Assembly for Wales, the repeal of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 and the subsequent restoration of devolved government to the 6 counties. This has led to substantial policy differences in various parts of the UK, exacerbating the fears of those not benefiting from the new institutions. English, Welsh and Northern Irish students may well ask, with considerable justification, why they should have to pay tuition fees to study in Scotland while Scottish students and those outside the UK but in the EU do not; we are, after all, supposed to be in the same state.

An interesting development this week has been in the form of the recommendations of the Conservative and Unionist Party's 'Democracy Taskforce' which is chaired by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke. Sir Malcolm Rifkind has written a paper promising wholesale reform of the way the House of Commons operates. This includes the creation of an English Grand Committee of English MPs only to operate on the floor of the House and to vote on matters decided by the Speaker to be of concern to English constituencies only. Welsh MPs are to sit on the committee on a provisional basis as the Welsh Assembly only has secondary legislative powers (surely this applies to Northern Ireland too?)

The main problem I foresee with this is with regard to money. Tax is levied by the central government in Westminster and a certain amount is allocated to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in accordance to the calculations of the Barnett formula. The rest is to be spent on the whole of the country which seems unfair to the English who have no regional legislative body. What has not been made clear is the extent to which English MPs will use money for issues decided by the Speaker to affect English constituencies exclusively and voted on by the English Grand Committee. The issues may be decided to be of concern only to the English but the affect on public spending certainly will not be and this seems hypocritical given the problem that has spawned the whole debate. Furthermore, the majority of Conservative MPs are English and this carve-up would benefit the Tories disproportionately. This is why I believe England should have its own regional assembly such as in Holyrood and which gets its spending power decided by the same mechanism as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As the Scottish Nationalists argue, the Barnett formula allows for a 1% real term reduction in the Scottish allocation once inflation has been taken into account and it has no real legislative basis. The Treasury could easily get rid of the formula and enforce politically damaging cuts if devolved governments were not run by the same party as the one that governs in Westminster (I am thinking of the SNP in Holyrood in particular). Would it not make more sense to split sovereignty (and the power of the purse) between a central government and a number of regional legislative bodies (in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England)? These regional bodies could levy their own taxes to pay for expenditure exclusively spent on regional issues and the taxes levied by Westminster could be used on issues which concern the whole of the UK (to be decided by all Westminster MPs). This would ensure a less arbitrary way of deciding on the fiscal powers of the various regions and, importantly, it would ensure that the politicians who decide how much money is levied by tax and where it is spent are directly accountable to their local electorates. This is the only equitable solution to the West Lothian question that I can see.


beano said...

It's an interesting proposal but there are a few issues that might arise.

1) The potential for English "nationalists" or whoever to claim that England was still being hard done by because it only had an Assembly and not a Parliament like Scotland.

2) I think England is too big, relatively, to operate under a federal Britain. Like a democratically elected Lords' could challenge the supremacy of the Commons, could not an English Assembly or Parliament so challenge Westminster's sovereignty? I realise that might not be an altogether bad result from a nationalist perspective, but it's hardly likely to encourage Westminster to take this action.

I would like to see regional assemblies in England, but they don't seem to want that - at least not with the regions proposed in John Prescott's ill-fated attempt at English devolution. Maybe the boundaries could be moved to have more recognisable and cohesive identities? Of course that also leaves the issue of County Councils becoming redundant. Ah this politics stuff is all so complicated.

nineteensixtyseven said...

Yes, there are many issues that seem to present themselves. Such issues tend to get more complex the more you think about them.
You would need a Constitution and a Supreme Court to decide and rule on the respective juristictions of the various assemblies and of the federal Westminster Parliament. I know that in America there is a lot of argument between state and federal levels over who is responsible for what and the Constitution has been interpreted and reinterpreted numerous times in that regard. All of this would not be welcomed by the conservative establishment and I can just imagine the reaction of the Tory press!

El Matador said...

Congratulations on the Maiden Post by new El Blogador contributor nineteensixtyseven!

Michael Shilliday said...

Northern Ireland Assembly is much more akin to the Scottish Parliament than the Welsh Assembly. It has primary legislative powers that the Welsh Assembly does not. The only reason it is not the Northern Ireland Parliament is that Nationalists whinged about calling it that.

beano said...

Doesn't a Parliament have an opposition? Regardless, I think Parliament is much too grandiose a term for the clowns we have running this place.

Michael Shilliday said...

Then you should vote for circus masters.

NO Reply. said...

I Thought Irish Nationalist where ment to be Pro United Ireland, im a Irish Nationalist/republican.
but i agree with some of this from a Re-United Ireland.

Michael Shilliday i can see your a bit racist against Nationalist with your tune, the reason why its not the Northern Ireland Parliament, is because there already was one, and look what that did [started a Civil war] the current Assembly has the Authority to pass primary Legislate but it reallity its not as powerful as the old Parliament which was left to its own devices to be racist to Catholic, and the powers it handled that are not within the Powers of the Current Assembly are transfered to the North-South ''Island of Ireland'' Bodies and East west bodies ''Great Britain and Ireland'' it reallity its sorta Confederate in Nature or sort of a Commonwealth.