Election pledges won’t count after the Lisbon Treaty experience
In 1787, a group of Americans came together and wrote a whole new constitution for their country from scratch in the space of four hot and humid months. Two and a quarter centuries later, it’s still going strong. True, they didn’t have the complicating factors of histories and traditions or established institutions that the UK has now but they did have to contend with other barriers to success, perhaps at least as high. There is absolutely no reason why Westminster cannot resolve the West Lothian Question between now and April, if it has a mind to.
That David Cameron has placed that question centre-stage, linked to the issue of greater fiscal autonomy for the Scottish parliament, is both just and prudent. The unfairness giving rise to the question has lingered far too long and tensions within the Union should be reduced if some parts are not given preferential treatment. On the other hand, linking the two issues – when the Scottish one is a matter of honour for all three leaders – does as much as possible to ensure it’ll be addressed.
What is lacking is urgency. Considering how little else parliament has to do in what remains of its time, that’s not good enough. Never mind a draft bill; Westminster should pass a full Act by the dissolution. That is the only guarantee that it won’t renege on the vow made by Cameron, Miliband and Clegg – a suspicion Scots could justifiably hold were nothing done beforehand given the experience of 1979. After the more recent ‘cast iron’ promise Cameron made on the Lisbon Treaty , many might also be sceptical of his word if nothing’s done beforehand having had the chance to do so (unlike Lisbon, it has to be said, where Cameron couldn’t meaningfully deliver).
Dealing with the Question now also removes the possibility that a future different government might choose not to act. After all, no parliament can bind its successor (nor, for that matter can any group of party leaders bind their current parliament without its consent), and one of the reasons the Question has lain unaddressed since 1999 is that it wasn’t in Labour’s interest to do so. Already, Miliband is making sceptical noises but that shouldn’t stop the government putting legislation forward. Much louder noises may come from behind the PM if he doesn’t.
What form that legislation should take is another matter – though determining that is precisely what parliament’s supposed to be there for. The simplest solution of banning MPs from voting on matters that are not applicable to their constituents brings its own problems. For example, there’d be multiple majorities in the Commons, potentially leading to gridlock if a government had an overall majority, so could decide how to raise the money to be spent on a service but not how to spend it. It would also mean that England would still share its government with the UK, unlike any other component country of the UK: the same ministers (some perhaps from Wales or Scotland), and the same civil service.
As a first and immediate step, that might still be the best option and perhaps the only one that could be agreed by April next year, preferably with all-party support but by majority if necessary. Nonetheless, it would still be a second-class resolution and would do little to address the disparity in the distribution of power and spending within England. Some favour a full English parliament (and, presumably, government), but that would look too much like duplication with Westminster, leading to inevitable rivalry.
Regional parliaments and governments, on the other hand, with similar powers to that enjoyed by Holyrood, would bring greater equality in spending as well as (one would hope) more responsive government and greater diversity of policy. Some would argue that such a move would merely produce local fiefdoms to be controlled by one party or another but the nature of politics is that opposition always finds a way. Labour dreamed of Scotland being theirs forever, likewise London. At some point there’ll be a non-Labour First Minister of Wales.
That, however, is for the future. Now is the time to make good on the promise to Scotland, and to make good the democratic deficit to England.