Gordon’s Constitutional Reform Programme: some snags

In his statement in the house of commons on 10 June 2009, the prime minister set out a 5-point programme of possible constitutional reform:

1.  Reform of the house of lords, with 80-100 per cent of the members elected.

2.  Consultation on a written constitution.

3.  Devolution of more power to local communities: e.g. local Government and city-regions.

4.  Review of the electoral system.

5. Increasing public engagement in politics:  how to get more people registered to vote, and interest young people in politics – including whether to lower the voting age.

The objectives of all these items are worthy and it’s too early in the promised consultation process to dismiss any of them out of hand.  But there are snags in each, and above all none is related to any overall vision of a better and more democratic society:

1. We can nearly all agree that the house of lords should be an elected body.  But should it be merely a “revising chamber” to tidy up loose ends left to it by the house of commons?  Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with its own parliament and government, has moved us (whether or not intentionally) into a semi-federal system, with the parliament and government at Westminster now trying to function as quasi-federal organs with limited powers in respect of those three devolved nations.  But federal systems around the world use their federal second chambers to protect the smaller units in the federation from domination by the larger ones.  That’s why tiny Vermont and North Dakota have the same number of representatives each in the US Senate as gigantic California and Texas: two Senators each, regardless of population or area.  Similarly little Tasmania has equal representation in the Australian Senate with big New South Wales and Victoria.  This prevents the big boys from being able to override the interests and wishes of the tiddlers in adopting legislation and approving policies. In the UK, with its huge discrepancy in size between England on the one hand and the other three nations on the other, the need for such protection is obvious: and it’s equally obvious that the place for that protection is the second chamber at Westminster.  We shall need to turn the house of lords into a federal Senate with the same number of Senators elected from each of the four nations.  But this can only be done as part of the process of completing devolution by moving to a full federal system.  This is going to be unavoidable sooner or later: it’s in the logic and DNA of devolution.  It will be a waste of time and energy “reforming” the house of lords now, while leaving its limited functions as they are, when a much more fundamental reform is going to be needed, perhaps within a decade, to give it a necessary and genuine role as part of a federal system.

2.  Much the same applies to the proposal for a written constitution, but with even more force.  The question should not be whether we need a written constitution, but what should be in it.  Our existing constitution is riddled with anomalies and injustices.  Despite limited devolution, our system is hopelessly over-centralised. We still await a suggested answer to the West Lothian Question — why should MPs at Westminster elected from Scottish constituencies vote on matters exclusively affecting England when English MPs can’t vote on the same subjects affecting Scotland if the subject has been devolved to the Scottish parliament?  What constitutional reforms does the prime minister propose to meet the challenge posed by pressure for Scottish independence, a secession that would mean the disintegration of the United Kingdom?   Why should the Westminster parliament and government try to  combine two utterly separate and incompatible functions — as quasi-federal organs for the whole UK on subjects not devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and simultaneously as a parliament and government for England, for which their composition is wholly unsuitable?  What justification can there be for denying to England the devolved powers transferred to Scotland and the other two nations?  (I have referred earlier to the need for a more radical reform of the house of lords than merely making it an elected chamber.)

It would be utter madness to set all these defects, challenges and anomalies in concrete by embedding them in a written constitution now, when our constitutional arrangements are in transition: that could only make it much more difficult to address the problems they create and gradually to make the constitutional changes they demand.  Once a federal system is in place, it will inevitably require a written constitution, justiciable in the Supreme Court, defining the powers and relationships of the constituent parts of the federation.  But to try to produce a written constitution now would be hopelessly premature: and, worse than premature, actually damaging to any hope of future reform.

3.  Decentralising power by pushing it further down to the people is certainly necessary, but merely increasing the powers of county and borough councils won’t go nearly far enough.  What’s needed in the first place is devolution of virtually all powers, with the major exceptions of foreign affairs and defence (which would remain the responsibility of the Westminster parliament and government), to the governments and parliaments of the four nations, including England — as in every functioning federation throughout the western world.  It would then be for the four nations’ governments and parliaments to push power still further down to local and regional level, according to the wishes of the people in each nation (which won’t necessarily be the same in all of them).

4.  My comments on the proposed ‘reform’ of the electoral system are here.  Before we decide whether, and if so how, to change the electoral system for the house of commons, it would surely be desirable to look at the future role, functions and (drastically reduced) responsibilities of the commons as a federal organ (which in many respects it already is), producing a federal government, in the brave new world of full devolution: subsidiarity made flesh.  Let’s agree on what we’ll be voting for, before we decide what kind of vote we want for it.

5.  The way to get more people, including young people, engaged in politics is to give each of the four nations real power over ordinary people’s lives at a much more local level, by completing the half-finished devolution process and moving to a full federal system.  Anything less will be purely cosmetic and ineffective.  The idea of giving votes to children (i.e. anyone under 18) is such obvious nonsense that it doesn’t need to be discussed.

The point, then, is that all Gordon Brown’s five points are premature.  They would saddle us with a permanently unsatisfactory and anomalous constitution when what’s plainly needed is first to sort out the anomalies in a coherent, long-term process, so that each of the five points falls into place as parts of an overall and radical reform.  To tackle each item piece-meal is doomed to failure.  Without vision, the people perish.  Power to the people!


8 Responses

  1. Rob Spence says:

    Yes, power to the people indeed. It’s rather depressing, though, that it takes the current political crisis, and Labour’s lowest poll ratings ever, for Gordon to come up with these notions. How much better it would have been if a confident Labour party had come up with this agenda in 1997 – well, to some extent they did, in their manifesto, of course, but on winning a landslide, it seemed to slip their minds.

    Brian writes: Fair comment, certainly. But — as I have tried to show in this post — none of Gordon Brown’s five points, taken either individually or together, suggests any understanding of the problems at the heart of our situation, still less of the scale of the change that will be required to address them. This random ragbag of proposals is either hopelessly premature when other far more serious defects are crying out to be tackled first, or else largely irrelevant.

  2. Denis Latimer says:

    Until a written constitution is agreed, there is a simple, immediate answer to the “West Lothian Question” which everyone seems to have ignored. Scottish MPs can offer no help at Westminster to their constituents regarding matters which are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament so they should accept the fact that they were not elected to deal with matters which have been devolved. They should therefore be obliged to refrain from voting on matters which do not apply to Scotland. In other words, when a policy is under consideration at Westminster, there is no need to argue about whether it affects only England. If the policy would be dealt with in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament, Scottish MPs should not participate.

    Brian writes: Thank you. The Conservatives have suggested a somewhat similar “solution” — an English Grand Committee, comprising only MPs elected in English constituencies, to deal with purely English matters in parliament. However, none of these attempts to square the circle by confining certain MPs to certain kinds of debate or legislation, or excluding others from them, provides England with an executive (i.e. government) to deal with purely English subjects, despite all three of the other nations having their own governments; none of them deals with the reality that virtually all legislation mainly affecting England has implications affecting the other nations, for example financially; and none of them devolves to a separately elected English parliament and government the kind of list of internal affairs under which the English can govern themselves in the way the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can do. None of them deals with the situation where the responsible minister, e.g. for schools, initiates and should steer through parliament a piece of legislation affecting only England — but the minister is barred from taking part in the legislative process because he was elected in a Scottish or Welsh constituency. Why is there such fierce, often imaginative, resistance to the only logical solution: to accept that we now have a semi-federal system but one which is gravely flawed because a constituent part of our quasi-federation lacks the self-governing powers and rights of the other three? As that quiz master used to say: we’ve started, so we’ll finish. (But we won’t, of course.)

  3. Peter Harvey says:


    While some details are arguable, I strongly agree with the thrust of what you say. I agree that it can’t be done overnight; there must be a wide-ranging public debate, which would take several months at least. It took Spain three years to reinvent itself as a constitutional democracy, from the death of Franco to the approval of the Constitution in a referendum. The circumstances were obviously different but the UK is in desperate need of a root-and-branch reform of its constitutional arrangements. While I have always supported the idea of a written constitution, I have also always known that a simple consolidation of the present system will get the country nowhere. And one thing that must go is this sort of medieval nonsense reported by the BBC:

    Mr Bercow’s election [as Speaker] was given royal approval in a traditional Parliamentary ceremony on Monday night.

    A basic feature of a constitutional democracy is that the parliament makes its own arrangements and informs the head of state of what it has done; it does not seek royal approval for its actions. Nor does it require a monarch to manage and oversee  the procedure of choosing a prime minister.

    A further point that I would mention is the danger of looking to the USA for an example of reform. I have considerable (though not unbounded) respect for the American constitution. On the whole it has served the country well and has shown an ability to adapt to changing circumstances; it has not always prevented bad government but it has proved able to bring the country back from the brink of catastrophe on more than one occasion. And yet, we must recognise that it is a constitution for the eighteenth century, a means of keeping a king under control for the days before modern representative democracy was known; the French presidency is a similar case, and for much the same reason, and so for that matter is the Russian system.

    However, in Europe at large there are countries that have changed fundamentally, and have recovered, or even acquired anew, constitutional democratic systems. The countries of which I can speak best are Spain and Germany, both of which have highly decentralised systems. The Spanish regions now exercise power on a considerable scale after the defeat of, and as a reaction to, Franco’s policy of extreme centralism; while I can’t remember the figures off-hand, I do know that well under half of Spain’s GDP is spent in Madrid. Germany’s diversity too is reflected in its constitutional system, which is federal. That system was devised after the Second World War – and by British lawyers be it noted – precisely to distribute power around the country and avoid concentration in any one point, although Bonn was only ever provisional (and built to be obviously so) and Berlin was always intended to be capital of a united Germany.

    Germany is a federation, with equal and considerable powers reserved to the Länder (regions), which vary very much in size from Bremen and Hamburg to North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria, not to mention the Berlin area. Its upper house, the Bundesrat, represents the Länder and is appointed by their parliaments, so it can have a majority from the opposition. I have no huge objection to this indirect democracy for an upper house – the US Senate was appointed in this way to begin with – provided that the system is transparent and that it works.

    Spain is not a federation; its autonomous communities vary in the powers that they have, from almost complete independence in the case of Catalonia and the Basque Country (which doesn’t stop the Nationalists moaning, of course), to much more limited powers for others, especially the smaller ones; crucially, there is only one common fund for social security (which includes health). The Canary Islands have a special tax system, as do Ceuta and Melilla on the African coast, and different postal rates, but all of these places are equally parts of Spain under the constitution. The Spanish Senate is also intended to represent the autonomous communities, though it must be said that it does not always do a brilliant job. Ceuta and Melilla are each guaranteed two senators under the constitution.

    The idea of federalism surfaces now and again, from the Socialists, to howls of anguish from the Nationalists who fear that it would lock them into a system in which they could never increase their local powers and from which there would be no escape. In fact, though, the present Spanish Constitution provides no mechanism for any part of Spain to leave. The system of ‘asymmetrical autonomy’ (which doesn’t sound quite so bad in Spanish) means inevitably that the West Lothian question is a fact of life; the funny thing is that it is not a problem and I have to do a good bit of explaining before people can understand what it is about. I rather think that the famous question is, despite its name, an English obsession. After all, who worries about the West Wales question – the fact that Scottish MPs at Westminster can vote on matters that affect Wales, but are reserved in Scotland for their own parliament at Holyrood and are thus outside the attentions of Welsh MPs in London? On the other hand, Spanish deputies have the constitutional duty to govern in the interests of the country as a whole. They are elected from provinces which act as multi-member constituencies to ensure that all parts of the country are represented but they are specifically not advocates for their regions; that role is taken by the governments of the municipalities, the provinces and the autonomous communities, who know that they might well be voted out of power if they are perceived to have failed. These bodies are powerful: the mayor of a municipality or the head of an autonomous government stands to his assembly in the same relation as a prime minister to parliament, a mayor is ex officio a notary and registrar, and except in the smallest municipalities he has a local police force that is responsible to him. And there are lots of mayors: Spain elects many more councils than the UK elects councillors! All this leads to very strong feelings of local identity, which is, in general, a Good Thing.

    Constitutions need amending from time to time but they should not be tinkered with too easily. The US Constitution has a single system for all amendments. In Spain some things can be done through qualified votes in the parliament, as has been done with the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties; other matters, those that go to the heart of the State, require an extraordinary procedure: a two-thirds majority in Congress and Senate followed by an immediate dissolution, a referendum, and a two-thirds majority in both houses of the new parliament. This procedure covers the section of the constitution that deals with there monarchy, so it will have to be put into effect if the section that prefers male heirs over females is to be changed. There is absolutely no political objection in principle to such a change, but the problems of political practicality are enormous!

    A referendum was held, and won, on the original EU constitutional treaty though I am not sure that was strictly necessary. The Spanish Constitution itself (pdf English text, Wikipedia article) was legitimised in a referendum on 6 December 1978, as are the Statutes of Autonomy of the various regions; we had a bitter battle here a few years ago over the new Catalan Statute, which is still not fully resolved as we wait for the Constitutional Court to rule on some points, and the bad blood caused by the haggling over money and powers between the Socialists in Barcelona and the Socialists in Madrid is quite extraordinary – but that is what politicians are for!

    To sum up, I would argue that the complexity of modern affairs means that the UK should look more to states that have adopted constitutions in the twentieth century than to the USA. There was a fashion a few years ago for comparing the number of words in the ten commandments, the US constitution and any modern such document that you cared to name. I never saw the point of it. As life becomes more complex, more complex documents are needed to govern it. But on the other hand, if the totality of the documents that make up the British constitution were assembled in one place, how many words would they actually contain?

    A democratic constitution is one part of a deal by which people voluntarily give up some of their individual freedoms to a State in return for services and security. It contains the rights of the people but also some duties; the Spanish constitution mentions among other things the duty to know the Spanish language and the right to use it, the right and duty to work, the duty to pay taxes and social security contributions, and the right and duty to defend the country when necessary. I would accept, however, that the more aspirational guarantees of the Spanish constitution, decent employment and housing for example, are unlikely to find favour in the pragmatic UK, and I know that an expression of duties is unlikely to find favour in a country where everyone knows their rights but few people are willing to recognise any obligations. In civil law countries the other side of this deal is the criminal code, which lists what the state can do to the citizens, and the circumstances in which it can do it.

    As a final point, I might mention that the Spanish Constitution of 1812 (pdf English partial text, Wikipedia article) was a very liberal document; in fact it gave the word ‘liberal’ in its political sense to the English language. It was approved by the Courts of Cadiz during the French occupation. When King Ferdinand VII returned, however, he reneged on his promise to implement it, returning to the absolutist system. Spain was to go through 166 years of dynastic and other civil wars and dictatorship with occasional moments of liberal reform between that constitution and the definitive victory of democratic ideas.

    Brian writes: Peter, I’m most grateful for this magisterial account of other European constitutions, and for your comments on that of the United States. I think you would agree that the Spanish constitution, for all its virtues (especially the high degree of decentralisation), would not serve as a general model for Britain, whose public institutions have developed so differently — although I wish we would copy the Spanish practice of electing mayors and councils in every community, however small. I agree with your reservations about the US constitution, which I too greatly admire in very many ways, including those that you mention. I wouldn’t anyway advocate that the UK should abandon its system of so-called “Westminster” parliamentary democracy in which the house of commons acts as an electoral college to elect the executive, whose members are drawn from parliament and remain members of it (quite different from the US presidential system with its partial separation of powers). I do however think that the US Senate provides an excellent model for the UK federation which we have begun to create, but now show a bizarre reluctance to complete. Our need for such a second chamber is made more pressing by the massive discrepancy between the sizes of the biggest and the smallest nations that make up the UK. (This is not, as sometimes asserted, a reason for not having a federal system: it’s precisely the reason why we need one.)

    I perhaps differ from you on two counts. First, I do think the West Lothian question high-lights a serious and confidence-sapping anomaly in our present system which needs to be resolved some time reasonably soon, even if a similar anomaly doesn’t apparently bother people in other countries. Devolution to three of our four nations but not to England just isn’t sustainable in the medium term. Secondly, I don’t agree with the Jack Straw/Gordon Brown mantra, reflected in your comment, that “all rights involve responsibilities”. Of course citizens do have both rights and responsibilities, but basic rights must never be made conditional on the carrying out of corresponding responsibilities, as the revised Human Rights Act that Straw is currently working on would assert. Our rights are unconditional and should remain so. A citizen who fails to pay his taxes, never votes, dodges the call-up in time of war, and throws a custard pie at Mr Straw, is nevertheless absolutely entitled to his liberty, to a fair trial before he can be deprived of it, to family life and to freedom of expression, to name but a few. The concept of the unconditionality of our rights is under fierce attack by the enemies of liberty and it’s important, in my book anyway, to rally to its defence.

    It’s sad that our politicians and other opinion-formers are so reluctant to study the constitutional arrangements of other countries and to learn lessons from them. Your comment is a valuable antidote. Would that more people would read it!

  4. Denis Latimer says:

    It is obviously true that arriving at an agreed constitution would take a long time but we shouldn’t have to wait to correct the travesty of democracy which the Labour Government has perpetrated since devolution to Scotland. . The Scottish Parliament consists of members chosen by their constituents as their representatives to deal with devolved matters. Inevitably therefore, members of the
    UK Parliament elected in Scotland ceased to be their constituents’ representatives for devolved matters and could claim to be their constituents’ representatives only for matters which were not devolved and which remained the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament.
              Constitutionally, the authority of MPs derives solely from the fact that they represent their constituents. There has been no change in the Constitution to change this, yet, since devolution, the Labour Government has continued to allow MPs from Scotland to participate in dealing with matters
    for which they represent nor are answerable to any of the people who elected them. To rectify this therefore all that is necessary is to restore the Constitution and revert to the representative democracy which we claim to be.

    Brian writes: Denis, these are interesting observations, but your proposed remedy doesn’t begin to address the destructive (and clearly unsustainable) imbalance in our federal-type system represented by the fact that England alone among the four nations does not enjoy the internal self-government, with its own parliament and government, practised in varying degrees by the other three. Until this glaring deficiency is corrected, we shall not be able to enjoy the clear benefits of a full democratic federation.

  5. Peter Harvey says:

    The importance of the West Lothian question depends on factors that surround it; as I have suggested, the constitutional requirement for Spanish deputies to govern in the interest of the country as a whole might remove a lot of the thorniness from the matter here. Catalonia and the Basque Country manage their own education, health and police among other things but there is no suggestion that they should not legislate on these matters for the rest of Spain. The only possible way of avoiding some manifestation of this question is, as you say, perfect federation. Nevertheless, many countries that are not federations manage to tolerate such a situation while being accepted fully as democratic. If there is to be a federation, I feel that subdivisions of England might be in order; for people in the north or west of the country, a central English government in London, where it would inevitably be, would be no better in terms of closeness than the present UK government.

    If you owe me £100 I have a right to acquire the money by any legal means and you have a duty to return it to me – in the last resort, and leaving morality aside, there is a legal duty to obey a court order. If I have a right to life and physical integrity, the State has a duty either to guarantee that right itself or not to interfere if I exercise that right itself. If I expect the State of which I am a citizen to protect me and provide services, I have a reasonable duty to know the language in which the State expresses itself, but the State then has a duty to ensure that children who are citizens are taught that language. If I expect the economy of the country as a whole to flourish, I have a duty to accept a reasonable offer of employment that is made to me. Rights are indeed absolute, not conditional. But so are some duties. US citizenship involves rights duties and obligations including a knowledge of the English language.

    Then there is the separation of powers. Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked that the Spanish prime minister had to ask for permission to address his parliament. Well yes, he does. Although he is a deputy, the head of the executive cannot arrogate to himself the right to address the legislature whenever he feels like it; on the other hand, he can be required to appear and there is a regular ‘control session’, like PM’s questions. The judiciary is independent of both other branches. Judges cannot be members of the congress. The Supreme Court is currently investigating a senator for corruption.

    It is obvious that no one country’s system can serve as a template for another but as you say, a look at how these things are done elsewhere can be useful.

    Brian writes: Thanks again for this. A few brief responses: West Lothian question: I agree. But in UK circumstances I don’t think this can be fudged in any durable way. Only the federal solution (not necessarily ‘perfect’!) will sort this one out. Rights and duties: As I said before, of course citizens, like governments, have duties as well as rights. The important thing is to recognise, as our Justice Secretary apparently doesn’t, that the rights are not conditional on performance of the duties. To take your own example, an American has a duty to speak English, but even if he fails to learn English, his rights under the Bill of Rights are totally unimpaired. Separation of powers: I doubt if any western constitution completely separates powers. In Spain and the UK (and other countries with Westminster-type systems) members of the executive are also members of the legislature. In the US the head of the executive nominates people to be appointed federal judges and one chamber of the legislature has to approve the appointments, and the number two in the executive is the presiding officer in the upper house of the legislature with a casting vote in the event of a draw. But at least in the UK we are making some progress towards greater separation: the Lord Chancellor’s judicial functions have been removed (he no longer sits as a judge) and he is no longer the presiding officer in the second chamber although AFAIK he remains a member of the executive; more importantly, the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, hitherto our highest court and rather nominally a part of the legislature, is being turned into an independent Supreme Court separate from the House of Lords (which will be helpful if ever we get round to becoming a proper federation).

  6. Denis Latimer says:

    I don’t care what the Spanish do. No satisfactory constitution can be based on MPs determining policies (a) for which nobody has chosen them as their representatives (b) which do not apply to their constituents (c) for which they are not answerable to any of the electorate. For example, when the Government decided to charge students tuition fees, who did Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling represent and, when they next seek election, to whom are they answerable? They succeeded in their intention of charging students only because of their Scottish members. If, by any chance, Labour wins the next election, they are unlikely to have a large majority, in which case practically all their policies will depend upon their Scottish members. Surely the English will then wake up from their apathy and demand a change.

    Brian writes: Thanks once again. This is a useful and lucid re-statement of the West Lothian question. I hope you’re right in believing that sooner or later the English will cease to put up with the present anomalous situation and, as you say, “demand a change”. A section of English opinion is already clamouring in various corners of the blogosphere for an English parliament and government, but for the most part the clamour seems to be driven by hostility to Scotland and the Scots (and to the concept of Britishness as being allegedly incompatible with Englishness) rather than by any desire for a more democratic and durable form of association between England and the other three UK nations, specifically including Scotland. Unfortunately this (to my mind warped) motivation for demanding a parliament for England (the accompanying need for an English government is generally overlooked) tends to discredit the perfectly respectable case for moving to a fully federal system for the whole of the UK.

    But I don’t think you can or should refuse to look at the experience of other countries, such as Spain but also including many others, to see if there are lessons that we can usefully learn from them. To act as if Britain is the fount of all constitutional wisdom and it’s for others to learn from us, not vice versa, flies in the face of reality and reinforces the British, or perhaps English, vices of ignorance and insularity, aka arrogance.

  7. Denis Latimer says:

    The system you suggest is theoretically appropriate but I don’t think there is much prospect of it being implemented by any major Party. In the meantime, surely we should demand that we are no longer deprived of our representative democracy and MPs should not be allowed to participate and vote on matters for which they represent nobody. This change could be implemented overnight if the Tory Party wins the next election and could be persuaded to adopt it. Constitutionally, all MPs were elected by being chosen by their constituents as their representatives to look after their interests by participating in all matters for which Parliament was responsible. The UK Parliament transferred responsibility for Scottish domestic politics to the Scottish Parliament so, when people in Scotland choose their representatives for domestic politics, they elect  members of the Scottish Parliament, not of the UK Parliament. When they introduced devolution to Scotland, the Labour Government ignored the effect on the rest of the United Kingdom and saw the electoral advantage of retaining the Scottish votes by pretending that the UK Parliament was unchanged. Now all that is necessary is to do what should have been done at the outset: If the matter being considered is the responsibility of the UK Parliament, all MPs should participate; if the matter has been devolved, MPs from Scotland should not participate.

    Brian writes: Thanks for this, Denis. I accept that there’s currently little or no prospect of persuading any of the three main parties to adopt full federation for the UK as even a long-term solution to our numerous current constitutional problems and anomalies. But that’s not a reason, I suggest, for failing to point out the immensely cogent arguments for federalism. Sooner or later some future leader might see the light. I wouldn’t support the kind of adjustment to parliamentary voting procedures that you propose, because —
    (a) Scotland isn’t the only UK nation affected — so are Wales and Northern Ireland, both to varying degrees, so it’s much more complex than your remedy might suggest;
    (b) I think it would be unworkable (almost all legislation affects other parts of the UK besides England, directly or indirectly; ministers are drawn from all over the UK and could hardly be prevented from participating and voting in debates on matters within their portfolios just because they represented a Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland constituency);
    (c) it would set up a kind of half-baked ‘parliament’ for England (i.e. Westminster MPs elected in English constituencies sitting in the House of Commons on their own) without a corresponding executive to determine policy for English matters, raise revenues through English taxes and by receiving an allocation of funds from the centre, and budget for expenditure on services for England, or indeed to do any of the things that the executives of Scotland, Wales and N Ireland already do;
    (d) we would still lack any definition of what powers are devolved to English constituency MPs sitting alone (what about a subject that is devolved to Scotland but not to Wales?);
    (e) I don’t think it would be acceptable to have different classes of MP with varying voting rights according to the extent of the devolution accorded to their UK nation (other than England!), and
    (f) mainly because, although unsustainable even in the medium term, it would be represented as an overall, permanent solution to the problems created by stopping the devolution process half-way through, and it would therefore tend to make the only genuine and sustainable solution (i.e. full federation) even more difficult to achieve than it is already.

    Any ‘settlement’ that leaves England, alone of the four nations, without both a parliament and a government of its own, is going to create more problems than it solves. And once we have national parliaments and governments for all four UK nations, we’re into 100 per cent federal territory and we’ll be forced to accept the logic of that, however reluctantly. Unfortunately our current political leaders of all parties are such intellectual and political pygmies that none of them seems likely to think sufficiently big to start the federal ball rolling. Those that can’t understand the logic of our situation can’t understand why federation must eventually be the way forward: and those that do understand it lack the political courage to start what would be an arduous and initially thankless debate on the subject, which would be the necessary precursor to action.

  8. Denis Latimer says:

    I don’t think we can afford to wait for the ideal solution and I agree that, if my suggestion were accepted, the case for your ideal would be weakened, but the present travesty has been perpetrated now for over 10 years and should not be allowed to continue. If the Tories succeed in the next election with a majority of less than 50 there should be a good chance that they will be forced to act. All they need is a bit of persuasion and encouragement. I am mainly concerned with the Scottish Question but my solution could be applied  unchanged to the other devolved areas: i.e. no MP should be allowed to vote on matters which, in their constituency, is not the responsibility of the UK Parliament. Welsh MPs will not be affected  much as the UK Parliament can act in Wales without seeking their Assembly’s agreement, therefore retaining responsibility. The Government argues that we cannot have different categories of MP in the Chamber but that is what we have had for 10 years:viz. Mps who represent their constituents and MPs who do not. The Government also protests that, without its Scottish votes it would be unable to ensure that it could carry out its manifesto but it is quite happy to be unable to carry out its manifesto in Scotland. It should really admit that it is afraid that it will not,  without these unjustifiable votes, be able to impose policies in England against the wishes of the English electorate. Brown then has the nerve to lecture everyone about democracy and accountability. The administrative complications will arise only under a Labour Government but they are a logical consequence of their devolution legislation for which they should have catered at the time, definitely not by abandoning democracy and accountability.

    Brian writes: Thanks once again. You make an unquestionably persuasive case. But personally I still think that the drawbacks to what you propose outweigh any possible benefits. Specifically, it would leave England with what would more or less amount to an English parliament (MPs from constituencies in England sitting alone in the house of commons) but still without any form of English executive. And there would be no way to replicate it when any draft legislation adopted by this all-English body went to the second chamber. I simply don’t see how this could be made to work under our system of government. However, the Conservatives have espoused much the same idea, so perhaps we shall find out after the next election how it would (or wouldn’t) work in practice. Meanwhile it still seems to me a case of the dubiously good being the enemy of the obviously best. I would prefer to hang out for the best solution, which I still regard as the only durable and defensible one. But it really comes down to a question of personal taste (and unprovable speculation).