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.