Friday, 3 December 2010

The West Lothian question rumbles on

I watched Question Time last night. It was the usual mix of politicians following their party lines (including Nadine Dorries tying herself up in knots) and John Sargeant arguing an implausible apologia for the BBC, to the effect that it would have been improper to delay the showing of the Panorama programme about FIFA until after the decision on the venue for the 2018 World Cup. Possibly one or two people might believe that.

The thing which drew my attention was the extent to which people are obviously getting concerned about increased higher education fees for students coming from England. John Sargeant was good on this (he said what he thought when not having to stand up for his former employer), pointing out that having a well educated citizenry is the key to future success, and that this country has managed to afford to educate its young people in the past when it was poorer and there seems no reason why it should not do so in the future. It is just a matter of priorities.

What interested me is the wedge this seems to be beginning to drive between people in England and Scotland. Outwardly it is unconscionable that students in England should pay large sums of money for their higher education when those in Scotland will not. A Scot and a person from England with similar qualifications may sit in adjacent desks at the same place of work in future, doing the same work at the same rates of pay, with one having to pay deductions against her income once she finds employment for as much as 20 years into the future, and one not. The Liberal Democrat proposals for a graduate tax do not seem any improvement on that: it is the same inequality in a different form, and indeed would be a form of double or super-regressive taxation - if it is true that graduates in general earn more, they pay more anyway through the existing income tax system

However this difference between England and Scotland, and now Wales also, is what devolved decision making is about. The overarching point on this is that every pound the Scottish government pays for higher education is a pound less that it can spend on something else within its devolved competence. There seems no reason, applying devolution logic, why this should cause friction within the UK, but the practical workings of devolution in this case, no doubt aided by the rantings of the Daily Mail, is doing so because the differential policy-making on higher education is, at the end of it all, simply unfair. And unfairness breeds resentment. The SNP must be loving it.

During the Question Time programme, Ken Livingston brought up the West Lothian question on this. Like it or not, it is a fact that student fees in England were only introduced in 2004 on the votes of Labour MPs for Scottish constituencies (and even worse, on a vote taken after the Scottish Labour party had decided against higher education fees for students in Scotland). Tom Harris MP, member for Glasgow South, has apparently taken exception to this, describing it as "anti-Scottish". Perhaps he has a guilty conscience as one of those responsible in 2004, but if not he should have. He has gone on to say that the West Lothian question has no answer and the Labour party should not get involved in considering it.

If it is really the case that there is no answer to the West Lothian question, then the Labour party in general and Tom Harris in particular should never have proceeded with devolution in the first place. If that is really the case, it is only a matter of time before the the current constitutional arrangements collapse. Let us image that Labour had managed to stitch together a deal with the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid Cymru to form a government after the last election: it would have been wholly reliant on its Scottish and Welsh members to enact its legislation affecting England only on matters devolved elsewhere, such as education. The current angst over fees for English students would surely be dangerously magnified if the current proposed disparities for students from England were to have been imposed by MPs for Scottish and Welsh constituencies not subject to the additional fees. Arguments that there are knock-on effects on Scotland and Wales via the Barnett formula, while that formula lasts (it is due for replacement), would have cut little ice.

There are answers to the West Lothian Question, some of which I explore here, here, here and here . The Tory pledge to deal with it was, as part of the Coalition agreement, shunted to a Commission to be set up by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. He was supposed to have set one up during the Autumn, but will now apparently publish proposals for one "by Christmas". It would be foolish for the Labour party to follow Tom Harris's advice and fail to engage, if and when Nick Clegg can manage to muster the energy to proceed with it. They created the current devolution arrangements, and they must help to resolve the problems it has created.


britologywatch said...

It should be borne in mind that, just as the Labour government required the votes of non-English MPs to bring in tuition fees, so the votes of non-English MPs would be required to defeat the present proposals to increase them, as the Tories have a majority of around 55 seats in England. We may or may not like the bill before Parliament; but any defeat to it would be democratically illegitimate.

Therefore, the West Lothian Question remains, as you say, as relevant as ever. I can't see how Nick Clegg could come up with any real solution to it, such as English votes on English laws, as this would undermine the rationale and need for the coalition with respect to England. The Tories would be able to command an outright majority on English matters if only English MPs were allowed to vote on them. So why bother with the coalition? And if you stuck with it, you'd potentially have a situation where Tory MPs effectively called the shots on English matters, as they could vote down any coalition policies they didn't like.

No wonder they're taking so long to come up with proposals!

Withering Vine said...

britologywatch: Thank you for your comments.

I doubt that the Democracy Task Force proposals would have rendered the coalition unnecessary on England-only matters, because under those proposals a Bill would still require approval of the whole House at both 2nd and 3rd readings. So it would be open to non-English MPs to block legislation with knock-on effects they do not like, but not to force it through against the majority of MPs representing English constituencies as they can at present (and did in 2004).

For that reason, the Tories would still need to keep the Liberal Democrats on side. In addition of course there is a lot of stuff on the fiscal and taxation side which is relevant to the whole of the UK.

However, you are right that it would reinforce the Liberal Democrats's status as junior partners in the coalition. That may be one reason why David Cameron has done some back-pedalling.

I think the Liberal Democrats' difficulties with the West Lothian question go back to two points, namely first that as a party they like to face in all directions at once (they are a natural party of opposition rather than government); and secondly that they have a significant number of members from Scottish constituencies who want to have something with which to occupy their time.