I asked for this debate on the constitution this evening because in the run-up to the election, when other issues—the national health service, the economy, national security and defence—will clearly be pre-eminent considerations, it is doubtful whether there is any other way over the next two months that this House can give detailed consideration to a set of constitutional challenges that, if not thought through or if mishandled, will in time threaten the very existence of the United Kingdom.
I am not here as an advocate of the status quo. I start by recognising that this House of Commons is England’s Parliament as well as the United Kingdom’s and that we should agree a Commons Committee reform that allows for detailed debate on English-only measures by only English Members. With reform of the Lords, reform of regional and local government, reform of the voting system and reform of the Commons itself also part of the queue of complex, interrelated and interconnected constitutional issues that are in need of democratic resolution, I believe that some kind of convention of the people or, if that is rejected, a Speaker’s Conference, which you might chair, Mr Speaker, is now the best way of ascertaining whether the United Kingdom can finally move from what is a 19th-century constitution to a modern, 21st-century one.
If the Union is to survive, it will have to be built on the interdependence of our four nations, and it will have to guarantee equality of status within the United Kingdom. My argument tonight is that with the announcement of English votes for English laws, which means nothing other than restricting the right of Scottish Members to vote in this House, the Government are deliberately driving a wedge between Scotland and England and, in so doing, they have asked the wrong question, and they are now getting the wrong answer.
However, at the very time that we should be attempting to unify and reconcile the four nations of the United Kingdom, building on the fact that the Scottish National party wants to be part of the UK currency, and on the fact that the nationalists’ economic case for independence has fallen as a result of the halving of oil prices, the Government have summarily rejected one of the central recommendations of the Smith commission, which they set up, which was:
“MPs representing constituencies across the whole of the UK will continue to decide the UK’s Budget, including Income Tax.”
The Conservative party has got this wrong, because it presumes, as Members now on the Government Benches have always said, that the fundamental anomaly in the British constitution is that Scottish MPs can vote on English-only laws, whereas English MPs cannot vote on Scottish-only laws. In retaliation for what they see as Scots pursuing a Scottish interest, they wish to pursue and enshrine an English interest above a common UK interest that could bind us together.
But what is called the West Lothian question is, in truth, only a symptom of the problems we have to deal with. The central anomaly, and the real asymmetry from which all else follows, is the basic, and indeed unchangeable, imbalance in the size of the four nations. England represents 84% of the UK population, Scotland represents 8%, Wales represents 5% and Northern Ireland represents 3%. England sends 533 Members to this House, compared with 59 from Scotland, 40 from Wales and 18 from Northern Ireland—117 in total against 533. It is obvious that when we start from such a profound imbalance and asymmetry—such a huge inequality in population and voting shares—fairness of outcome cannot easily be secured by a blanket uniformity that treats the minorities exactly the same as the majority. It follows that the rules needed to respect and reassure the minorities, who might always be outvoted, have to be different from those needed to uphold the majority.
The challenge is not unique to Britain. The United States, Australia, Spain, Switzerland, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria and many other countries have had to find ways of managing the gross inequalities in the size of their constituent parts without undermining their unity. As the price of keeping the United States together, California accepts that it has just two Members of the US Senate to represent its 38 million citizens, while Wyoming has the same number to represent just 500,000 citizens—one Senator for 250,000 people in one part of the country, and one Senator for 19 million in another.
Similarly, the price New South Wales pays for Australian unity is having one Senator for every 580,000 people, in contrast to Tasmania’s one Senator for every 40,000. Fair treatment for minorities and national unity are achieved in the Spanish Senate, the Swiss Council of States, the South African National Council of Provinces and the Brazilian, Nigerian and Mexican Senates not by the crude and blanket uniformity that is characterised by English votes for English laws, but by special arrangements that recognise that minority rights have to be respected and upheld so that the provinces, states or nations can be held together in one Union.
With the Leader of the House’s announcement that he would exclude Scottish representatives from voting on what he now calls consent motions, including annual consent motions on tax issues arising from the Budget, he is breaking with the old-established practice of other countries, breaking with our own constitutional history, and breaking with all sensible advice in creating what the Government now boast is the English veto, making ours the first and only Parliament in the world where two classes of representatives will exist and where some representatives are clearly more equal than others.
By the Government’s own insistence on devolving all income tax to the Scottish Parliament and then using that as a pretext for banning Scottish MPs from voting on income tax here, there will be a constant national refrain that there are now first-class and second-class MPs: the English who rule and the Scots there on sufferance. I have to ask—
I will give way after this. I have to ask Government Members this: can you imagine Scotland, or possibly Wales and Northern Ireland, being enthusiastic about sending MPs to this place indefinitely if they have to withdraw when the real vote on the Budget—the consent vote, or the veto motion—is being taken on this central economic legislation once a year: income tax rates in the Budget voted on by a consent motion that excludes Scottish and, in time, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs who also want devolution of taxation? Can we sustain truly positive support for one United Kingdom Parliament for long when it becomes clear that the Government of the day owe their existence to an English majority and ride roughshod over other representation? If anybody is in any doubt about the threat to the unity of the UK posed by English votes for English laws, they should take note of how Scottish National party Members, who want to break the Union, have become its biggest supporters.
It was said of the Hapsburg monarchs that they would never learn from their mistakes. Surely the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats should heed the lessons of history. For decades William Gladstone, when Prime Minister, tried to find a way of balancing what he called the rights of “outsiders”—in this case, the Irish after home rule—and “insiders” without breaking the Union, but then concluded in his final term that it
“passed the wit of man to frame any distinct, thorough-going, universal severance between the one class of subjects and the other”.
He was not alone, for in 1965, when Harold Wilson’s proposal for steel nationalisation was defeated by Ulster Unionist votes, he asked his Attorney-General to devise a formula for two tiers of MPs, and he could not do so. At that time, the Conservative party insisted: “Every Member of this House is equal with every other Member of this House and all of us will speak on all subjects.”
I will finish the history and then I will let the hon. Gentleman intervene.
When, in 1972, the Kilbrandon royal commission again considered English votes for English laws, it concluded:
“in our view, therefore, all Members of Parliament, whether or not they come from regions with their own legislative assemblies, must have the same rights of participation in the business of the House of Commons”.
“no form of ‘in and out’ voting has been identified that would be sufficiently consistent with the basic features of our constitution to be workable”.
It seems that a problem that could not be solved in two centuries the Prime Minister now claims he has mastered and resolved in just a few weeks. I have to say this: if after 50 years in politics and four periods as Prime Minister, Gladstone could not find an answer to this question, and if every subsequent Prime Minister since has found it unworkable and unanswerable within the Union, might it not be somewhat immodest for the Prime Minister, who set up his review in October and published the results in December, to say that he has found the answer in just eight weeks? Might not he have been modest enough at least to listen to and get some perspective from his old constitutional history tutor at university, Professor Bogdanor, who has argued—
Professor Bogdanor has argued that while
“English votes for English laws seems at first sight a logical response to the English Question…it is in fact incoherent…a bifurcated government is a logical absurdity. A government must be collectively responsible to parliament for all the policies that come before it, not just a selection of them.”
The reality is that EVEL, English votes for English laws, and this hunt for perfect symmetry in an asymmetrical world risk jeopardising the Union in the long term. Let me quote Mr Michael Portillo—this is probably what Sir William Cash wants to say. Mr Portillo said only a few days ago:
“I think it is creating daily a greater division between the two nations, which will lead to a sort of logic that the two nations should separate...The English mentality I think is now increasingly that the two nations are going in different directions: that if you’re a Scottish Member of Parliament you are a second-class citizen to an English Member of Parliament and you will be allowed to vote on certain matters.”
If the Union fell now, it would not be because of what happened during the referendum, the result of which was conclusively against leaving the United Kingdom, but because of what happened since—[Interruption.] The Union will not fall because most Scots demanded independence from the United Kingdom—they did not—but because leaders failed to convince them that they were fully committed to its unity—[Interruption.] It will not fall because a majority of people today want to leave the United Kingdom but because people feel that there is a Scottish interest and an English interest and that the Government have not defended the UK interest.
Sensible Conservatives recognise that. Commenting the morning after the referendum speech by the Prime Minister, Lord Strathclyde, author of the Conservatives’ own proposals on devolution, which rejected this approach, said:
“If we are serious Unionist politicians we need to use the language of healing and strengthening...We started off perhaps with…a step in the wrong direction”.
“He went from being a Prime Minister who had absolutely done the right thing in the national interest to making a very partisan judgement on behalf of the Conservative party”.
The implication was that the Prime Minister was putting the integrity of the United Kingdom second not to the express demands of the people of England but to the very vocal demands of the UK Independence party.
I hope that it is a point of order, but go on. Briefly.
Let me make two points. It is very simple. First, Mr Brown is perfectly in order. Secondly, Mr MacNeil is bearing more than a striking resemblance to an over-ebullient puppy dog. That is not something we want to see in this Chamber. He should take an example in statemanship from Pete Wishart and calm himself.
The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong again. His colleague Pete Wishart was wrong to shout earlier that the majority of Scottish people wanted independence. The majority of Scottish people were clear that they did not want independence, and the sooner the SNP realises that it does not have a majority for that position the better.
The right hon. Gentleman is overlooking several points. The first is the question of unfairness to the English voters. That is the key issue. Secondly, he asserts that there will be two classes of Members under our proposals. It is not about two classes of Members but two different functions. It was his Government and his party leader in 1996-97 who created the devolution arrangements without making proper recompense for the unfairness to the British voter. That is where the problem lies.
I have already proposed an English committee system that the hon. Gentleman should accept. He is forgetting the lessons of every other country in the world that is trying to hold together minorities in different parts of the country. They have to find a way of respecting the rights of minorities while upholding the majority. Nothing in yesterday’s EVEL proposals answered those problems. It is difficult to define what an English-only Bill is. If we take one possible definition of “separate and distinct effect”, constitutional lawyers say that that would encompass just half a dozen Bills in 10 years. That makes us ask why it has been proposed.
English MPs vote normally as a bloc in the same way as UK MPs, which suggests that this move has been proposed for other reasons. Whatever the practical considerations, the real damage of English votes for English laws is not its mechanical application. The real damage, before a veto is imposed, is the creation of a perception that the United Kingdom is now only about separate interests and not a common interest.
I am going to finish.
There is a myth that the Union can survive this new polarisation between Scotland and England. The myth is that it is held together by bonds that are of such long standing that they can overcome what may be seen as a local difficulty. I say to the House, however, that what may have been true in the aftermath of the second world war and its shared sacrifice has given way to a new world where none of our ancient institutions is strong enough or popular enough on its own to hold us together.
The Union cannot survive on mutual respect alone—it is in short supply at the moment—or just on the basis of mutual toleration, a minimalist policy of holding each other at a distance for fear that we will fight. The Union will hold together only if there are things that the people of our four nations believe they have in common; if we emphasise that there are common needs, mutual interests and similar values that make us want to co-operate; and, in short, if there is a belief that we do best by sharing. In the modern world, where countries survive or falter on the basis of a daily referendum of opinion, such sharing has to preserve our historical willingness to share risks and transfer resources between each other to tackle issues such as poverty, unemployment and inequality.
The 18th-century Prime Minister Lord North is today remembered for only one thing, which is that he lost America. Will this current Prime Minister—this is the statesman’s question—now act to ensure that he will not be remembered in history as the Lord North of the 21st century? On
I have made proposals for reform. I do not want us to pre-empt a constitutional review. I know that the Secretary of State for Scotland supports the position I am representing. The issue tonight is whether he can persuade his colleagues in the coalition Government and Government Members before it is too late.
May I congratulate Mr Brown on securing this evening’s debate? It is very good to see the House so well attended and particularly animated, which is not always the case in our Adjournment debates.
At the start of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman said one thing with which nobody could take exception, which was that this is a time for us, through the work of the House, to bring unity to our four nations. For those of us who represent Scottish constituents at Westminster, that was very much the view expressed by the people of Scotland in a quite remarkable democratic exercise on
The right hon. Gentleman has done us a service by bringing this issue to the House tonight. The issue is entirely legitimate, and nothing will work less to the advantage of the Union than seeking in any way to deny that legitimacy or simply seeking to avoid it. It is absolutely right that all the political parties should look to address the issue, as indeed they are doing.
As we look across the political landscape and address the various options available, it is only possible to conclude one thing—that there is no easy answer and absolutely no quick fix. If we try to achieve an easy answer or a quick fix, we run a very real risk of replacing the obvious and patent anomalies of the current constitutional settlement with new ones, which would place more pressure on the hinges of our United Kingdom at a time when those who would break it up remain vigilant for a chance to do so.
If I may make a little progress, I will give way to my hon. Friend in a minute.
Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House laid out the proposals of the Conservative party. It is a matter of record that my party disagrees with that approach. Nor is it much of a secret that there is a range of views within the Conservative party, from those who believe that this issue is best left alone to those who want a more radical solution. There is not much consensus in that party, let alone between the parties in this House. However, there is a broad consensus here about keeping together our family of nations. That requires that this issue be considered carefully with an eye to a lasting settlement, not a short-sighted or short-term partisan advantage.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the proposals that were agreed to tentatively by the Conservative party yesterday will not necessarily be the solution, because the real problem is that the new Parnell from Scotland, in the form of Mr Alex Salmond, will come down and use any opportunity relentlessly and ruthlessly to create as much chaos as possible, and thereby disrupt the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that Alex Salmond was here for many years and often sought to do exactly that. However, in terms of achievement, there was not a great deal to show for his time here. I therefore caution my hon. Friend about pre-judging the outcome of the election on
My party has always been clear that any parliamentary vote involving English or English and Welsh MPs only should be held on the basis of a proportionate vote share from the previous election. Devolution to the constituent nations of our United Kingdom has always taken place on that basis, and for good reason. It would be wholly unjust effectively to devolve power to England or England and Wales in a way that distorted democratic opinion and passed unfair advantage to any party.
The logical and lasting solution to this conundrum, in the view of my party, is the creation of a federal United Kingdom, in which England as a whole or in its constituent parts devolves powers from Westminster and, by extension, answers the West Lothian question. I accept, however, that we may be some way from that solution.
The options can and should be considered by a constitutional convention, as the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath indicated. The convention should be empowered to look at all the anomalies and difficulties that we face. In that way, we can forge a consensus and build lasting solutions that strengthen the bonds of our United Kingdom, rather than threaten to break them.
It is important in this debate that we learn more about the Liberal plans for the proportional representation of MPs. It seems, with respect, that they could end in a really bonkers situation. What would happen if the Green party got 5% of the votes but only one MP? Would the Green party lady walk through the Lobby representing 20 other colleagues? What would happen if the Labour party got 38% of the popular vote but 43% of MPs? How would it be worked out in practice?
Those matters would, of course, have to be considered by the House before it countenanced a change to Standing Orders of the sort that I have outlined. The example about the Greens would have to be taken into account and it might determine the size of any such Committee. I say to my hon. Friend gently that this House has tackled many bigger conundrums and challenges than that, and we have shown ourselves to be equal to the task. Although his point is legitimate and thoughtful, I do not see it as a barrier to a change of the sort that my party favours.
It might be helpful to add a little context to the question of Scotland’s representation in the Union, so I will briefly remind the House of the recent constitutional events that brought us here. On
Immediately following the independence referendum, the Prime Minister established the Smith commission as an independent body to convene cross-party talks on further powers for the Scottish Parliament. The heads of agreement were published before St Andrew’s day, in line with our commitment, and were welcomed by the UK Government. The next stage of our commitment was to publish draft legislation, setting out what the agreement would look like in law in advance of Burns night. Two weeks ago, ahead of schedule, the Government published the draft clauses with an accompanying Command Paper.
The Secretary of State has got part of his history wrong, because since the vow there is now the vow plus that has been advocated by the Labour party. We are in a constant state of flux and constitutional change in Scotland. Where do the Government see it ending? We have the vow plus from Labour, but what is the view of the UK Government?
I thought I was making a mistake in giving way, and I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s question has confirmed that. His party did a brave thing in taking part in the Smith commission—for the first time ever, it was an historic moment to get all five parties from the Scottish Parliament around one table. He was part of that consensus; perhaps he did not like it and was one of those who put pressure on John Swinney and others to run away from the settlement that they had just signed up to.
Rather than coming up with such points, the hon. Gentleman would do better first to calm down and relax a little, and he could then tell the House what he and his party will do with the powers that will come to the Scottish Parliament as a result of the Smith commission. One thing he does not want to accept is that as a result of the Smith commission, Scotland will have the third most powerful devolved Parliament anywhere in the world. A tremendous amount of good can be done with the powers that will be given to the Scottish Parliament, and that is where the debate ought to be, rather than the constant whinge about vows or vows plus.
I am sorry but I am running out of time.
The Government are doing everything we can to enable 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, as recommended by Lord Smith, and hon. Members will know that on Monday I took an order through the House to deal with that very point.
A great deal more could—indeed will—be said on this subject between now and
Question put and agreed to.