JR Max Wheel
14 March 2017
The UK’s proposed exit from the EU has thrown up some serious fault lines inside the Union. A core reason is a failure that goes back years, the infamous West Lothian question so eloquently described by its own MP. Tam Dalyell, whereby the devolved administrations MPs sitting in Westminster can vote on English matters, yet English MPs cannot vote on those arising in those administrations. The movement towards decentralised power in the UK was in principle fair enough- to move decision-taking closer to the people, but as with many important issues it was not thought through, thereby creating another anomaly in the quirky nature of the UK’s unwritten constitution.
Despite sitting for a Scottish seat- West Lothian, Dalyell opposed both plebiscites in 1979 (Callaghan Government) and in 1997(New Labour- Blair). He was right. Nonetheless New Labour pursued the devolution agenda in Scotland and Wales creating a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The tortured politics of N.Ireland was subject to a separate agreement. The critical failure was to confine the plebiscites to the constituent countries only and not open to English voters. This might be seen as a cynical ploy to entrench Labour votes in its traditional heartlands especially Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, all it has done is the reverse, encouraged a nationalist and separatist movement, based on actual and perceived historical grievances. The situation in Wales has not (yet) resulted in a similar upsurge in nationalist feeling. Had the devolution argument been aired properly it would have queried the relationship of all the constituent parts, not just the devolved regions.
Thus, rather than redefining the United Kingdom for the future, it has created confusion and mutual suspicion. A much better solution would have been to have redefined the role of the Upper Chamber, long a parking lot for the great and the good and a handy way of rewarding party political participation. Its role as a revising chamber is a valuable one, but it has become a bloated anachronism, with over 800 members. In addition, it contains bishops, law lords and hereditary peers. Why so many when the US can have an upper house of 100 in the Senate and other parliamentary democracies make do with many less than the UK. There have been endless attempts to re-legitimise the Upper Chamber by direct election, none has really succeeded.
What is needed is a Chamber that reflects the diverse interests of all the countries, and thus represents regional interests which cannot then be over-ridden by solely English interests, nor vice versa, this would force a level of real debate and concerted decisions. Needless to say this would provide a perfect opportunity to reform the Chamber and to rid the UK of its excess peers, and to concentrate their minds on issues of real importance.
This matter acquires an extra urgency as Scotland contemplates a second independence effort and whilst N. Ireland faces a very difficult problem arising from Brexit. It suits no one except those willing to frustrate the electorate’s result, of which there are plenty, with quite specific and anti-democratic views.