Wednesday, July 02, 2008

 

Ken's Midlothian Answer Poses Yet More Problems

One of the most intractable political problems thrown up by devolution has been the Midlothian Question: why can Scottish MPs vote on English issues while the formation of the Scottish parliament precludes any reciprocation? This is especially vexing for Tories when they have a majority in England, but not in Scotland. The solution of an English parliament- so attractive to those flying the flag of St George- would shove the UK way down the road to disintegration. So the Conservative's Democracy inquiry chaired by Ken Clarke has come up with a sort of 'third-way' solution.

Instead of banning Scottish MPs from voting on English measures, his idea is to allow:

MPs from all parts of the UK to vote on English bills at the beginning and end of their journey through the Commons, known as second and third reading, when they are considered in general terms. Scottish MPs would instead be barred from taking part in the stages in between, the committee and report stages, when the bills are considered line by line.

It seems no less a person than Douglas Hurd favours such a course and it would appeal to those closer to that 'English Nationalist' position. The first thing which occurred to me is that if English MPs can stymie legislation by amending it out of sight in committee stage and Scottish MPs are not allowed to assist any subsequent overuling, then we are effectively presented with another, slightly dilted version of the 'English Parliament'. Scottish Lib Dem MP, Alistair Carmichael, has already called it a 'recipe for constitutional chaos' and others have been quick to flag up their doubts. Peter Riddell points out that:

a)defining what constitutes an 'English Bill' might be awfully difficult.

b) a stalemate would result if a UK-wide majority sought to vote away committee stage amendments it opposed.

c) Welsh MPs would inevitably be involved if anything along these lines was implemented.

In other words, it seems like an awfully complex answer to a question which a reform of the Barnett Formula divisions of public expenditure for the constituent elements of the UK might alleviate. Riddell concludes, wisely:

Yet is this all a sledgehammer to crack a nut? The political problem, a Labour majority in the UK but a Conservative one in England, is very rare: occurring only three times, briefly, since 1945 (in 1950-51, 1964-66, and between the 1974 elections). It is highly unlikely after the next election. The Tories now have an answer to the West Lothian question, but one that a Cameron-led government may be in no hurry to implement.

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