Sunday 1 February 2004

Oh what a tangled web ...

My Member of Parliament is Alistair Darling. In today's Sunday Times (registration may be required outside the UK), Mr Darling writes about calls for Scottish MPs to be barred from voting on "English" matters in the House of Commons:
It would go against the grain of our constitution to have two classes of MP. When constituents send their representative to parliament they expect them to represent their interests. MPs are not restricted exclusively to constituency matters but are free to speak, and vote, on all matters brought before parliament.
Of course MPs are not restricted to speaking about "constituency matters", and rightly so. But Mr Darling has a problem. There are already two classes of MP. An MP representing an English seat can speak and vote on UK concerns such as foreign policy and levels of taxation. So too can Mr Darling as MP for Edinburgh Central. An English MP can speak and vote on health and education policies affecting his own constituents. Mr Darling cannot do so because health and education policies for Edinburgh are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. He is a different sort of MP. What Mr Darling can do is speak and vote on health and education in so far as it affects English voters and that is a constitutional outrage.

Mr Darling points out that some apparently "English" legislation nevertheless has a Scottish impact:

Take the question of the current Higher Education Bill. While variable fees, as a devolved matter, will not apply to Scottish universities, many Scots attend universities in England and, indeed, a significant proportion of the Higher Education Bill will apply in Scotland. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Scottish MPs are interested in these proposals. The idea of Scottish MPs participating in scrutiny of some bits of a bill and then withdrawing for others would be unworkable and absurd.
I'm sorry but that won't do. Many Scots attend universities in the United States. Does that mean that Mr Darling should be able to vote in the House of Representatives? I think not. The coming of devolution means that is absolutely necessary for Westminster legislation to be firmly and fairly split into English and UK categories with Scottish MPs having no say on English laws.

Here's another problem identified by Mr Darling:

Even more fundamentally, it would make a nonsense of the way in which we choose a government and hold it to account. There is no separation of the legislature and executive in the UK. If we had two classes of MPs we could be faced with the prospect of a government elected for the UK unable to deliver its programme for parts of the UK. A government with a majority in the UK but not in England.
It is quite wrong for any party to be talking about implementing a programme for all parts of the UK from Westminster - Scottish domestic policies are devolved and are legislated from Edinburgh. Mr Darling doesn't seem to grasp the necessary implications of the devolution settlement.

The current situation is the creation of Mr Darling's own party and does indeed logically imply an eventual movement to either federalism or independence. For myself, I chose federalism. To those who reject federalism as being unworkable because of the dominance of England in the UK state, I reply that the problem goes away when government is reduced to its (arguably) legitimate function of protecting the people against those who initiate force or fraud.