Transcript of Brian Taylor's lecture

 

  • Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland's Political Editor, gave the Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture on 23 August 2006. The event at Edinburgh International Book Festival was chaired by journalist and broadcaster Ruth Wishart.

Listen to the 2006 lecture

Thank you, Ruth, for that very kind introduction. Thank you all for coming in such large numbers. And thanks especially to the National Library of Scotland for giving me the opportunity to give you the Donald Dewar lecture tonight.

I knew Donald very well, as Ruth said. I liked Donald Dewar enormously. He was ferociously bright, he was witty, he was companionable, he was thoroughly decent, and he was dedicated to Scotland. You can hear the 'but' coming can't you? He could also be utterly, utterly exasperating.

Memories of Donald Dewar

At a poll covering a by-election in Paisley, I think it was, when my objective - I was following Donald round: he was touring a carpet factory - when only objective, my sole objective, was to obtain a clip of Donald Dewar in time to get it back to Queen Margaret Drive for the lunchtime news. Donald was doing his little tour and we were about to try and get him outside, and the manager whispered to Donald that they had a collection of rare rugs - I think they were Persian, but I must confess that my attention was elsewhere at that particular moment. And, nothing would do but Donald had to see the rugs.

So in he goes, and I am standing outside in the rain, fuming and waiting for him, and my deadline is vanishing. Eventually, after something like a year, he comes out and he's just bubbling about the rugs. 'You should have seen the colour, Brian. You should have seen the weave!' At that point I really could cheerfully have strangled D Dewar, I really could!

But how to categorise him? Well, He was an intellectual aesthete with a genuine passion for football. He was a tall, thin spare figure who could comfortably consume an entire box of chocolate biscuits at a sitting. He was a pleasant chap who could nonetheless display satirical bite in debate, and deep, deep gloom in private.

I recall one occasion shortly before the first Holyrood elections. Donald was due to dine at our home. He was coming in for a chat, and my young son, who is sitting somewhere in the audience tonight, said: 'Who's the guest? Who's coming?' I then explained it was the Secretary of State for Scotland who had pretensions to be the first First Minister of Scotland in Scotland's new devolved Parliament elected by a system of proportional representation. My son, as the young will, cut to the chase. He said: 'So, he's the boss of Scotland then?'

I thought about that and have thought about it since. Well, was the boss of Scotland? Is Jack O'Connell the boss of Scotland, or is it Tony Blair? And. more to the point tonight in the issue I'm going to address: is it right that we Scots should have our own elected chief while retaining partial powers to boss about England too?

The people are sovereign

Now, of course, in determining where power lies, I begin with the familiar statement that 'the people are sovereign'. The voters decide who governs them. And, in that context, I love the story of the defeated American politician. I think he was standing for a state senate seat. He lost his seat and he was giving his concession speech and he said: 'The people have spoken … the bastards.'

In that same view, we have popular sovereignty, but which people is it? Is it the citizens of Scotland, the citizens of the UK, the citizens of the EU? And how it that expressed? Is it expressed through Holyrood, through Westminster, through Brussels - what? What's the method? What's the methodology?

The West Lothian Question

And yes, we're talking West Lothian, folks! We're back in Bathgate! We're live in Linlithgow! Tam Dalyell, come on down! (He's bound to be in the audience somewhere.)

Definitions first. We are not dealing here with the alternative West Lothian Question. That is the question which asks: at what point, moving east from Glasgow to Edinburgh, at what point in West Lothian do the chip shops stop serving salt and vinegar and start serving salt and sauce?

No, not that one - this is the real thing. This is 'the full buna'. (I wonder, it's somewhere round about Bathgate, I reckon, but I'm not sure which.) This is the real thing. How can it be right that MPs from Scotland can vote at Westminster on domestic matters affecting England, but not on matters affecting their own constituencies because those are devolved to the Scottish Parliament?

Now that's the old question. It's Tam's old question. But, like a virus within the body politic, it has mutated. Scotland's participation in Westminster in any form is now under question from certain southern quarters. Admittedly that scrutiny is sporadic, it's imprecise, it's inchoate, but it's there.

The Trinidad and Tobago Question

It's said by some that the Scots are 'over-mighty'. 'They're getting above themselves.' Now maybe it was the hot summer weather, maybe it was sporting tension, but the World Cup really seemed to bring out some of that resentment about this supposed Caledonian hegemony. As Sven's men were battling gamely for England in Germany, sharp questions were being asked back home of the Scots. You might call it, if you like, the 'Trinidad and Tobago Question'.

Let's remind ourselves of a few such comments. They are quite remarkable. Here's Rod Liddle writing in 'The Spectator'. He claims, and I quote: 'A visceral hatred of England is now almost compulsory if you are a member of the Scotch race.' He goes on to suggest that the Scots secretly yearn to be oppressed, and adds charmingly: 'In which case, hell, Jimmy, just say the word. We'll be there for you.'

Or there's Kelvin MacKenzie (who plainly has issues with his own name) writing in the English edition of 'The Sun'. He brings, he says, 'bad news and good news about the Scots.' The bad news - apparently we hate the English. And the good news - the Scots are dying sooner than people elsewhere in the UK. And yes, he really did write that!

Or Simon Hoggart in 'The Guardian': 'Does anyone south of the border give a monkey's cuss that the Scottish First Minister supported Paraguay last week?' Well, yes, Simon. It would appear that you do, given that you've devoted more than one column to the West Lothian Question and to offshoots thereof. I'm less than convinced by your disclaimer. It sounds rather like the terracing chant: 'Nobody likes us. We don't care.'

And there's more, there's much, much more, including a simply magnificent 'Telegraph' leader headlined: 'God, probably, is English'. I just love it. It's glorious.

Post-Devolution identity

But what's caused this outpouring? What terrible crime have we Scots committed to provoke such gnashing of teeth? Well, apparently we elect our own Parliament and (whisper it) one or two of us didn't give absolute and unquestioning commitment to Sven, David and the boys during the World Cup, including our own First Minister who expressed admiration for 'the underdog'. Translation - 'not England'.

Now, most of this is fluff. It's another version of the 'England is Britain' fallacy. It seems to me unconsciously that such commentators are unable or unwilling to admit the very existence of Scottish identity. Or perhaps rather they believe, somewhat intuitively, that there is a default identity - British but, in practice, English - to which we should all adhere.

They don't appear to appreciate that people in Scotland can easily accommodate a range of identities, Scottish and British conjoined, perhaps Scottish more than British as the surveys suggest. And perhaps, I believe, an increasingly common position is to have Scottish as the national identity and British as the state identity.

Our irate commentators ignore all this. They don't get the concept. Mostly they don't want to get the concept. They prefer ill-informed fluff.

However, in parallel to all this - which is, as I say, fluff - there is a serious and entirely legitimate debate going on about the nature of democratic sovereignty in the present United Kingdom. And Scotland cannot ignore that debate. We can't afford to just put up the shutters and blind our eyes and say, post-Devolution: 'I'm alright, Jock'.

To borrow my young son's technique, let's cut to the chase. Is it right that Scottish votes can help determine purely English affairs against English wishes? Is it fair? No, it's not - with caveats.

And those caveats first. Let's look at what's actually happened to popular sovereignty in England post-Devolution. In the past, the good and sensible people of England were governed by the Union Parliament at Westminster and they were apparently content to be so governed. In the future those same people, presumably still good and sensible, will be governed by … the Union Parliament at Westminster. Nothing has changed at all. Except, of course, that Union Parliament now contains fewer members from Scotland, down from 72 to 59, which means that England's numerical dominance at Westminster has been strengthened, not weakened, as a consequence of Devolution. So why the fuss?

Gordon Brown and the Tories

One temporary, short-term reason is that the Tories want to discomfit Gordon Brown. They want to imply that his Scottish origins, his Scottish constituency, somehow disqualify him from moving next door to Number 10. That he is, de facto, unsuited to govern England. Well they certainly seem to have got under the skin of the said 'Broon'. The Chancellor was even moved to suggest that one of his favourite footballing moments was when England's Paul Gascoigne scored against Scotland. Oh dearie, dearie me!

But presumably the Tories will be content merely to irk Gordon Brown. To try and get further under his skin, to invite voters in England to infer that obliquely he doesn't, as a Scot, serve their interests. That he can't. Because for those of us observing from the sidelines it may provoke some innocent merriment, particularly when voiced by a party leader who was a member of the clan Cameron.

But, you know, thoughtful Tories are aware that they can't push this too far, they really can't take this too far. Think about it. If a Scot really is institutionally barred from leading the United Kingdom in Government, it seems to me that that of itself may pose significant questions for the very future of the UK.

For if that is genuinely to be the case and not just fluff and yap, then we are explicitly saying that one signatory to the Treaty of Union - that is, Scotland - is intrinsically and permanently of less significance than the other signatory, England. Now I don't expect that that is a formula which will appeal, in the short, medium or longer term, to the Conservative and (let's never forget) Unionist Party.

However much I understand their desire to tease the Chancellor (and again we can look on with amusement at this), I think that sort of interpretation would be going too far for them. It would be literally beyond a joke for a Unionist Party.

English perception of unfairness

However there is a more substantive issue beyond the ephemera of one party prodding another. There is a growing perception of unfairness in England. As I said earlier, it's slow-burning, it's inchoate. It's imprecise. It's founded not on hard fact but upon grumbling disquiet. It's there and it's understandable, and it requires a response, in my opinion.

You can almost sense the English lion stirring herself and sleepily stretching out a paw and roaring gently, and just wondering what's going on in the world. What are they doing to us?

I would relate this phenomenon - it's not scientific - but I would relate this phenomenon to a wider sense of uncertainty in England about identity, linked to the European question as well as Devolution. For decades, identity south of Hadrian's Wall was absolutely certain. They were English. Silly question - why bother asking? Wasn't everyone?

They might use the word 'British' rather than 'English', but they used those words interchangeably. They meant the same. There was no real uncertainty, but, slowly, doubt began to seep in. What did it mean to be English when power was seemingly slipping across the Channel to Brussels? What did it mean to be English when the Scots were running their own affairs? Don't they like us anymore? What's going on?

The concept of 'Britishness'

Now of course this didn't escape the gimlet eye of New Labour in the early days in power. Devolution, frankly, mostly scared the life out of those UK ministers who bothered to think about it at all. Devolution was Scottish-driven. It was run from Scotland. It was motivated by a powerful sense of Scots identity. The Scots wanted that sense reflected in their political structures. It was a basic and simple as that.

That would never do at all. You couldn't just leave it to the Scots. Devolution had to be presented as a grand design, part of a wider UK framework. Hence we were treated to a sequence of ministerial speeches, each purporting to explain the concept of 'Britishness'.

Now the PM and others had a bash, but my particular favourite was Barbara Roche, who was then a Home Office minister, at a speech in 2002. 'What?' she asked portentously, 'is Britishness? It is shared values, democracy, the Rule of Law, the importance of strong communities and, above all, tolerance and respect? These', she concluded triumphantly, 'are what Britishness is ultimately about.'

Now in a long and mostly amusing career in political journalism, I have never heard such platitudinous piffle as was delivered in that speech. Democracy and the Rule of Law? For goodness' sake! What's uniquely or distinctively British about those? Don't the Americans have a word or two to say on those topics? Don't the French? Tolerance and respect? That isn't a national or state definition. It's the foreword to a party manifesto!

British by choice

Now, national identity is a nebulous and varied blend of birth, upbringing, education, choice, inclination - whatever you like. Scots, like most others, are a gloriously mongrel nation.

But state identity is different. That is a political construct which may or may not match our own personal sense of national identity. We may or may not feel comfortable with both.

Contrary to rumour, Britain did not arise resplendent and fully empowered from an azure sea. Nor did France, nor Germany, nor Italy, nor the United States. Nor indeed, to embellish the point, did pre- or post-Devolution Scotland, nor pre- or post-Union Scotland. States, federations, devolved territories are all political identities created by hard political bargaining by determined leaders, and quite frequently by conflict.

Take Germany. Germany is a federation of neighbouring German-speaking states. It includes Prussia and Bavaria, but not Austria. Why? Politics and Bismark. Why multilingual Switzerland? Politics and history. Why multilingual, multi-community Belgium? Politics and history. Same answer.

The present British state is broadly an amalgam, a construct, of the 1707 and 1800 political Unions, as amended by certain 20th-century developments on the island of Ireland. It's a political entity, not a way of life. But that's not to say - for the avoidance of any doubt - that's not to say that Britain doesn't command respect, loyalty and love from many of her citizens. It does. But it is still a political construct built upon geography, pragmatism and a sense of pooled identity.

Let's look back at Barbara Roche's definitions in that speech - tolerance, respect and the rest. Try out the argument in reverse. Britain could become intolerant and disrespectful overnight, but the British state would still exist. It would have no difference to it whatsoever. Equally such states are not immutable, they're not fixed. They change, they merge, they spilt. Britain is British because we, mostly, say it should be. It's an issue of sustained collective choice, not Divine Right.

Political power and popular mandate

Which tells us what for Scotland? Which tells us what for the UK? Well it tells us that there is no reason why the present political arrangements shouldn't survive as they are. Devolution might be, in John Smith's carefully considered phrase, 'the settled will of the Scottish people'. There's no reason to assume that it is the final will of the Scottish or the UK people.

Which brings me back to West Lothian. Strictly speaking it was first voiced as a question by an individual MP, on brilliant form, about an individual MP's voting rights. But the broader concern today is about political power and the implementation of a popular mandate. Put simply - again, cutting to the chase, to use my son's approach - the concern in England is voiced by the Tories, but not just by them. The concern is that the people of England may vote for a Government of one colour only to find that the political hue has changed once the ballot boxes from Scotland are counted.

Now, last year at the UK General Election more people voted Tory in England than voted Labour. Labour won more seats because of the distribution of their votes in relation to the voting system. The Tories don't support electoral reform and consequently they couldn't complain all that loudly.

But isn't it likely that eventually, perhaps relatively soon, England will return a majority of Conservative seats and yet see a Labour Prime Minister enter Downing Street because of Scottish support. Who knows, perhaps a Scottish Labour Prime Minister elected against the apparent wishes of the people of England. Oh calamity! Constitutional crisis! Disaster, disaster! Calloo! Callay!

Party seats and Election outcomes

And yet, hang on a second: this has happened before. It's happened previously to each of the Union signatories. England has previously voted for one party only to be governed by a rival. Similarly, and this is usually forgotten, Scotland has voted for one side only to see the other lot returned to govern the UK.

Now, I'm a fairly whimsical sort of chap. Decades of supporting Dundee United does that to you! So I decided on a whim to try and look at the actual facts surrounding this aspect of West Lothian.

I went back in the archives to 1832. And before any cheeky colleagues out there ask, I didn't cover that Election. I went back in the archives to 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act. I tallied up the seats gained by each party in England, Scotland and the UK as a whole in every Election since, so I could work out when the UK political outcome (who enters Downing Street) ran counter to the expressed intention of either Scotland or England in terms of seats gained.

I discovered that England had been 'thwarted' six times. On six occasions England had voted for one party (Tories) only to see a Liberal or Labour Prime Minister returned. For the political purists - and I think I detect just one or two in the audience tonight - those six occasions were in 1837, January 1910, December 1910, 1950, 1964, and February 1974.

Now, I see a little gleam in the eyes of the purists: 'He's going to tell us next about Scotland.' Well, I am indeed, but without the details unfortunately, as they're rather too lengthy. Since 1832 Scotland has been thwarted 14 times. It's too extensive of course, to read out every one, but it includes, of course, the most recent Thatcher and Major years.

New Model West Lothian

So, let's regroup. England is run, as in the past, by a government whose mandate derives from the UK Parliament. As a consequence of Devolution, that Parliament has fewer members from Scotland, not more, thus entrenching the English pre-eminence still further. Okay, there's a bit of revived grumbling about West Lothian, or rather the prospect that England might vote one way but end up with another Government. For shorthand let's call that 'New Model West Lothian'. However that hasn't happened to England since February 1974. Those of you who remember will remember that Harold Wilson went to the country again in October and gained a full mandate in that year.

By contrast, Scotland was thwarted, if you want to use that comparison, as recently as 1992. And historically that has happened to Scotland far more frequently than to England - more than twice as frequently. So what's the problem? What's all the fuss about? Logic and arithmetic tell us that England has gained in terms of political clout from Devolution because there are 13 fewer MPs from Scotland at Westminster.

And yet, and yet, it doesn't seem fair. And perception is important in electoral politics. The perception is that the Scots are governing themselves and sending emissaries down to London to govern England too!

Scottish independence

Now, of course New Model West Lothian could still affect Scotland. Voters here might plump for Labour or the SNP or the Lib Dems and receive a Conservative UK Government. But, since Devolution, that wouldn't affect the vast swathe of domestic issues which are handled by the Scottish Parliament. Which means that English votes cannot drive the domestic agenda in Scotland. (There's just no fun left in politics anymore!) By contrast, Scottish votes - or, more accurately, the Scottish constituency outcome - can influence, can even determine, the domestic agenda in England. Set cold arithmetic aside. It's no' right and it's no' fair.

So what are we to do in Scotland? Shrug our shoulders? Stop asking the question? Simply wait until New Model West Lothian happens for real in England and try to sort it out? Well, certainly masterly inertia is a much-underestimated political tool. But it might be better on balance to have a few ideas to hand. I accept entirely that it's primarily an issue for England, but I believe that Scotland is almost duty bound to have a say within the debate as well.

Now, at this point the Nationalists in the audience - and I expect there are a few among you as well - are hopping about in your seats. You can barely sit still: 'Please, please, ask me, ask me!' Because yes, of course, Scottish independence answers the West Lothian Question. End the Union and Scotland can never thwart England again in the way I described. Absolutely true. So, problem solved? All happy?

Yes, I thought there may be some division in your views. For the avoidance of any doubt, I am taking no brief for or against the Union, for or against independence, for or against Devolution. I take what comes from the voters and analyse accordingly. So in that spirit, let's look at some other options which are being suggested and see whether they work.

Regional government in England

What about regional government in England? Labour tried to instigate Devolution to the English regions. This was part of the grand design notion that I mentioned earlier. To be frank there was little discernable enthusiasm for this at the top of the party, with the exception of John Prescott. And he probably now thinks the idea's crap. But, apart from that, it was tried and it is still suggested as an answer to West Lothian.

Well it didn't work. It just didn't work. Devolution for the north-east of England was comprehensively rejected in a referendum. And in any case, what's often missed is that this initiative wouldn't have solved West Lothian at all, even if it had been rolled out across the whole of England.

Read the original white paper. I'm sufficiently 'sad' to have done so. This scheme was about creating a regional delivery mechanism for central Whitehall objectives with money determined by meeting central Whitehall targets. It was big league local government. It wasn't Devolution.

Secondly, you don't alter the voting arithmetic in the House of Commons through regionalism, unless you provide full legislative Devolution to the English regions to match the power available to Scotland. Otherwise it doesn't work. You can have all the regional assemblies you want. Birmingham? You got it. Newcastle? Why aye, bonny lad. But as long as the votes on legislation and money are taken at Westminster, then West Lothian looms. To alter that you have to have assemblies at Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Manchester and the rest, with the power to vote through their own laws.

More to the point, this proposal for regionalism has minimal political support among the people of England. Some argue, quite reasonably, that support would be enhanced if there were bigger league, bigger power assemblies being proposed. I must say I hae ma doots. I don't detect popular pressure in England for regionalism, let alone setting up a string of rival Parliaments for Westminster. So regionalism may or may not have merits but, as it stands, it has literally nothing to say about West Lothian.

Federalism as an option

So what about federalism? Would federalism work? Well, in theory Britain could reorganise on US or German lines with powers formally divided between a federal Government and a network of sub-states.

Big snag. Big, big snag. What do you federate in Britain? In the US and Germany existing territories joined together to form a larger federation, negotiated on a hard basis. They joined together. They pooled power on an agreed basis. In both those federations there are endless disputes, especially in Germany, about the balance of power between the centre and the regions. But there was at least a regional geographical base, political base, on which to build federalism.

But how do you break up an existing state into a federal state? What boundaries do you use? Do you impose federal boundaries upon those English regions, giving them sub-state powers when the popular response is apathy or hostility and the boundaries are unclear? Well, scarcely.

So do you federate along established boundaries? England, Scotland, Wales? But these are far from equal in terms of population and economic clout. Yes, absolutely, you could federate Scotland and England. In US terms it would be like forming a US federation based solely upon California and Rhode Island. Hardly stable, I would submit.

And what happens to the federal and English Government leaders? There would be two figures. Would they take 'shotties' in Downing Street, turn about? Or would the English Government decamp to York or maybe Pimlico? Has anyone seen the film 'Passport to Pimlico'?

To be serious, I don't believe the federal option presents a practical solution, at least at this stage. For one thing, it has minimal party support. The Liberal Democrats espouse federalism, but for very good reasons they have done nothing to agitate for that cause, since their Scottish party endorsed unilateral Scottish Devolution.

English votes on English issues

Which brings us to the newest wheeze, produced by the Tories. That there should be a statute barring MPs from Scotland from taking part in Commons votes that affect England only. It's called 'English votes on English issues'.

But think about it. Legislation is rarely pure and never simple. Many bills that purport to cover England alone actually extend to Scotland or have implications for Scotland, as was argued with the tuition top-up fees bill. Perhaps we could get round that. We draw the legislation more tightly. The speaker defines a bill as being purely English. But there are more fundamental problems.

Let's cut to the chase. We're talking here, in practice, about a situation where the Tories have won a majority of seats in England while Labour has gained a majority in the UK as a whole. That's what we're really talking about.

So whom does the Queen invite to form a Government? Remember that's how it happens in Britain. It doesn't happen by magic. The Queen invites someone to form a Government. Does she invite the party leader who can command a majority for the UK, or the party leader who can command a majority for England for the vast bulk of domestic legislation affecting 85 percent of the UK people?

Okay, we would get round that. Assume that the Queen, as sovereign of the United Kingdom, invites the UK winner to form a Government. A Government which will not, de facto, be able to sustain a majority on virtually all of its domestic legislative programme. Because the domestic programme post-Devolution is overwhelmingly English and that Government, in the circumstances I am describing, has no English majority. It's a Government that would lose day and daily in the House of Commons unless it can forge a deal with the very party it has just fought tooth-and-nail against in the Election.

Practical problems too. Hard practical problems. Unlike Holyrood, the Commons form ad hoc committees to consider legislation line by line. Those committees are formed for that one bill and they break up at the end of that. Those committees reflect the distribution of seats in the Commons as a whole and they are led always by Government ministers and Government whips. They reflect the Commons majority. But which majority, the UK one or the England one, when Labour leads in the UK and the Tories lead in England?

If it's the UK majority, Labour packs the committee with ministers, wins almost every vote and then loses when the bill comes back to the House. If the English majority is to be reflected in the committee, the Tories will dominate, the ministers will be kept out. You would have a situation where a UK Government measure is settled in the absence of that Government by a majority from the Opposition party.

Financial consequences of legislation

Suppose all of this could be got round. Suppose it's passed into law. Suppose we get royal assent. The big one I think is this. Bills often have financial consequences. It costs money to implement what Government and MPs want to do. Parliament votes on those financial consequences. There is an actual vote where a distinct money resolution taken immediately after the bill is given a second reading by the Commons as a whole.

But think. The bill itself, the legislation, the piece of document, may not itself have direct consequences for Scotland. It may be an English bill. The legislative measure may be confined purely to England. However, the same cannot be said of the money resolution. By definition, that has consequences for the UK as a whole. Money spent in England cannot be spent in Scotland.

Take an extreme example to illustrate. Suppose the Commons legislate to provide a 24-carat-gold-plated lavatory for every school pupil in England. Now, the measure itself does not affect Scotland. We can wish them farewell and hope they have a fine day for it, because school toilets are devolved. But the cost affects Scotland. Money spent on gold-plated loos in England is money withdrawn from the Treasury, money that cannot consequently be spent elsewhere in the UK.

So what should happen in the Commons under English votes on English issues? MPs from Scotland may indeed absent themselves from the Gold Lavatories (England) Bill. But what about the money resolution issue? Would they not be neglecting their constituents if they failed to protest against such largesse spent on gold-plated bogs when Scots kids had to content themselves with chilly china?

Cross-party co-operation

Perfectly seriously, a Government which cannot control expenditure cannot govern.

Now, the Tories in the audience tonight (and I expect there are some of them alongside the purists, the 'Nats' and the merely curious) may say quite reasonably: 'Not our fault. Don't ask me. Not our problem. We didn't create the anomaly. Labour did by implementing unilateral Devolution in Scotland.' Absolutely true. Quite right.

I understand that view within limits. Labour's present response to West Lothian does strike me as complete sophistry. It is to say that the sovereign House of Commons willingly created an anomaly by passing the Scotland Act. It can theoretically remove that anomaly at any time by abolishing the Scottish Parliament. Therefore the Commons should simply live with it. Live with it, get along with it.

Now that's strictly true. Holyrood could be abolished. The bold talk in the Constitutional Convention of entrenching the Scottish Parliament was just that - talk. But Labour's argument is bogus nonetheless. 'Oh, here, what are we like? We've created an anomaly. What are we going to do?' It won't wash. It just won't wash.

Scottish Devolution is not a blip, a passing anomaly. It is a durable constitutional reform - with consequences. So that same reform arguably created new thinking in Scotland. Perhaps we should try and apply some of that to this problem. Not the misconceived version of consensus, the notion that everything could be solved by a cup of cappuccino and a group hug, but hard bargaining coalition, challenging cross-party co-operation in the search for solutions to tough problems.

It doesn't always work - what does? Too often Holyrood politicians descend into futile baleful taunts and meaningless gestures. But sometimes beneath the radar they work well together, within the parameters set by the electoral system.

Now I accept that such an approach will be tougher to sustain at Westminster when the parties are two sword lengths apart and confrontation is entrenched by history and tradition. Although, of course, in practice such co-operation happens privately every day already behind the scenes, through the usual channels. Arguably, though, the search for a settlement is preferable to hurling insults and pretending that New Model West Lothian will somehow go away if we stop asking the question.

Response to West Lothian

Governments must, indeed, govern. I take that point strongly about expenditure, but perhaps we do need to take account of a concept of a variable mandate across the whole of the UK and respond accordingly. Perhaps, indeed, the party which has the majority of English seats is entitled to a bigger role in English legislation than yelling impotently from the Opposition benches. Perhaps that might comprise closer consultation, a greater say on the detail of legislation with very strict limits on powers to order extra expenditure which affects the whole of the UK.

Perhaps a UK government which is unable to command a working majority over English constituencies is obliged to moderate its programme accordingly. The alternative, I would suggest, is to put strain upon the Union, arising not from fractious Scots but from disquieted English people.

Now, there will be those - presumably there will be those in the audience tonight - who welcome such strain, who wish the Union at an end. It will be entirely logical and consistent for them to place stress on New Model West Lothian, to highlight it, to declare the question insoluble within the Union, to declare that Scotland and England should therefore build a new relationship as self-governing states.

Equally, though, it strikes me as incumbent on those who support the Union to offer a coherent pragmatic response to West Lothian. As an answer it's probably insoluble. It may be beyond us as a response. Such a response would address the issue of purely English legislation, but also the status of the UK Government. It may well be necessary, as I said, to amend Westminster practice to meet a situation where one party has a majority in England, but not in the UK as whole. In common fairness that may have to be looked at, although there are strict limits to such an approach, even if the hard problems can be overcome.

Scotland's say in UK matters

There is a counterbalancing argument, often forgotten in the last year or so, to those who complain most volubly about West Lothian. And that is that the Government elected by the UK as a whole (including Scotland) is entitled to do just that - to govern the UK, to handle foreign affairs, and defence and security, to direct the economy and the budgetary priorities in the interest of the whole of the UK.

Think of it this way, if the Union is to continue to mean anything at all then Scots voters and politicians from Scotland (G Broon included) must be entitled to their full proportionate say in such UK matters. The slogan 'English votes on English issues', while it evokes some sympathy, must not become 'English votes on all issues'.

Now, when Labour was in opposition, they occasionally deployed the claim that the Tories had no mandate to govern Scotland because they didn't have a majority of Scottish seats - borne of frustration that went beyond arguing for reform and into the realm of challenging the very legitimacy of the UK Government.

I always thought, frankly - Donald Dewar even evinced it on one rash occasion when he was very tired after 1992 - I always thought that was a hostage argument for a Unionist party. The Tories are now entirely understandably demanding payment of the ransom, even though I believe as a Unionist party they will be cautious in their approach, measured in their tone, eventually. Otherwise they may have to choose between the Union and full-blooded support for this concept of English votes on English issues.

Practical response to Devolution

To sum up, those who advocate independence have an answer to a New Model West Lothian. They face of course the minor inconvenience of winning electoral support for that opinion but they have an answer. They have a consistent answer and they are entirely justified in advancing that argument consistently.

Those who advocate federalism also have an answer, but one that seems to me, at present at least, to create further constitutional problems for the UK.

Those who tolerate and advocate Scottish Devolution, I believe have an obligation to find a practical response, within the confines of the Union, which respects the democratic wishes of the people of England while preserving the UK government. That's the duty, I believe, on those who espouse or tolerate Devolution.

Final thought - you know, this could all have been settled. Many of you here will have read Sandy McCall Smith's entertaining tales of life at '44 Scotland Street'. Any readers in the audience who have read that? Do you remember young Bertie? Young Bertie, the put-upon child with an exceptionally pushy mother - exceptional even for Edinburgh, where there's some very tough competition!

Bertie apparently spots Tam Dalyell in Valvona and Corolla. Tam's having a cappuccino. In private Tam tells Bertie the answer to the West Lothian Question and Bertie's pushy mother immediately demands to know the secret. Exasperated beyond toleration, Bertie declines to divulge and keeps it to himself.

The answer was thus denied to the people of Scotland. That's a real pity. A real pity.

Thank you very much indeed.

 

 

Recording of the 2006 lecture   |   NLS Donald Dewar Lectures page



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