Monday, 23 January 2012

A Modest Proposal Regarding the West Lothian Question

There was a discussion on this week’s The Week in Westminster on Radio 4 regarding the West Lothian Question (i.e. the ability of non-English MPs to vote on matters regarding only England).  Since this discussion is now being set in the context of huge constitutional change (that is, Scottish independence) then why not think big when it comes to creative solutions to the Question too.  Assuming that Scotland remains a part of the United Kingdom, my question is: why is nobody discussing a possible federal structure for the United Kingdom?  Scotland already has its own Parliament, we just grant it some more powers and upgrade the Welsh and Ulster Assemblies to full Parliaments and set up one for England as well.  Westminster would remain the ‘Federal Parliament’, with a much reduced number of MPs (and possibly even peers) and a remit to cover only those issues relating to the UK as a whole.  The most obvious of those are defence and foreign policy, but no doubt there are others.

Obviously it would be More Complicated Than That (© Ben Goldacre) but it’s a good starting position, surely? Is the fact that such a discussion isn’t happening at all purely inertia and conservatism (with a small ‘C’) or are there more serious objections to a federal UK that I’ve missed?  That is very likely since I don’t have a political science background and haven’t thought through all the implications, but surely there are many models throughout the world that we could look to, the US being the most obvious, but also Germany, Russia and India spring to mind (and there are more on the Wikipedia page).

As I said above, I’m discussing this purely as a side-issue to that of Scottish independence, so issues specifically relating to whether such a state would satisfy the demands of Nationalists are irrelevant to this discussion.  I’m interested purely in the thought-experiment of a federal UK.  I’d love to hear thoughts on the subject.


DAve says:

Interesting idea.

The main drawback is that Westminster (UK parliament) won’t give England her own parliament. I don’t know whether in their eyes this would undermine the UK parliament, reduce this to a mere talking shop for defence, foreign affairs, and, err, what else is devolved again? Would reduce the mother of all parliaments to a gentlemen’s club.

A side issue: why do we need the UK as a union if Scotland is independent? Maybe that’s a topic for a whole other post!

Raj says:

Would reduce the mother of all parliaments to a gentlemen’s club.

I wouldn’t describe the American Congress as a talking shop or gentlemen’s club, I think if it’s done right, it wouldn’t be irrelevant at all, which is what I think you’re implying here.

And I don’t think Westminster is exactly against an English parliament – remember that Labour suggested an assembly for the north of England. That was voted down in a local referendum, if memory serves (ah yes, here’s the Wiki link). I don’t think that was the right way to go, but it shows some flexibility regarding the idea.

Raj says:

From Olaf on the LJ feed:

Not coming from a political science background, the scale of logistics involved doesn’t seem particularly greater than that which exists already, save for the fact that England currently only faces council and UK parliamentary elections. The fact there’s an elected mayor in London, separate from the election of the city council shows a step in that direction, in fact – in effect, Boris Johnson is currently the governor of London to draw a parallel with the USA’s structure.

Of course, there will be a enhanced infrastructure required, and there will be issues over the placement of the English and Federal governments – take, as an example, Washington DC, which was deliberately placed at the intersection of the most populous of the founding states, in an attempt to create an independent site for the federal government, in the same way as Luxembourg manages to stand separate from the Netherlands (then including Belgium), France and The Holy Roman Empire, and how Vatican City manages to exist within the city of Rome. Were the federal government to be placed in London, there would be some feelings of unfairness that it is located clearly within one of the component states, in the same way as there is ill feeling in Italy regarding the placement of the post-Garibaldi capital in Rome.

There’s also the matter of representation. While the USA isn’t precise, there’s a theoretical degree of equivalence on the sizes of state governments. Taking a look at the populations of the component countries of the United Kingdom, England had (2001 census) a population of 49,138,831, a density of 395/km2; Scotland had 5,062,011, a density of 65.9/km2; Wales 2,903,085, a density of 140/km2; Northern Ireland 1,685,267, a density of 122/km2. 9,650,363 people live in the UK outside of England, which is less than 2% of the population that England has. Thus, in real terms the sheer amount of representation an English-person would have would be smaller in the English Parliament than if they lived in any other part of the nation with regards their local government. To that end, the calls being made recently for devolved parliaments or assemblies for “the regions” (The West Country; Cumbria; The Midlands; Yorkshire; The South-East; etc.) would gain weight.

At that stage, however, we develop a situation where the legislature on matters such as drinking age, age of consent, provision for health care, and such will vary by a multitude of smaller administrations across the nation – something that causes problems in the USA, where the independent states are often larger than the whole of the United Kingdom. Consider, for example, age of consent. Until recently, the age of consent in Northern Ireland was 17, matching that of the Republic of Ireland, but that caused various issues with regards sexual congress with visitors from the UK mainland; now it’s dropped to 16, matching the rest of the UK, but that does mean that it can cause issues around the border (remembering that in the 1950s/60s Chuck Berry faced a number of charges over taking teenagers across state lines from states where they were sexual minors to states where they were deemed senior enough to consent, and it’s only a matter of time until we see some scandals occurring along the Irish border, I have to feel.

So, to sum up, the idea is solid enough, in and of itself, but the logistics involved are substantial and it will take a long time, and a lot of money, to institute the necessary changes, and it will face a lot of resistance from the public and the government alike – after all, the fact is that the rearrangement will destabilise what little political stability may survive in the UK (suddenly safe seats may not be so safe, as there is now a split in the ward because of the new system, for example). In days where voter numbers are falling in general, and the economy is taking a nose-dive, there’s going to be little impetus and a lot of disdain for such a waste of money.

Of course, that’s just my opinion.

Raj says:

England had… a population of 49,138,831… 9,650,363 people live in the UK outside of England, which is less than 2% of the population that England has.

Um, I think you’re an order of magnitude out – ~10m compared to ~50m is closer to 20%, not 2%, which makes a Parliament for England as a whole much more viable in my opinion.

Re: your last paragraph (which I won’t quote in its entirety), I think shaking up the political system and cutting the number of safe seats may well re-engage people into politics. Whereas now many people feel disenfranchised through living in a seat where their vote means very little, this could shake things up and make people feel like they matter and that their representative is closer to them than their current MP.

Money, of course, could well be an issue.

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