Conservative Home

« Donal Blaney: Winners aren't perfect: they just make fewer mistakes than their rivals | Main | Bill Melotti: The essential need for a Conservative approach to Civil Liberties »

Daniel Hannan's memo to Gordon Brown: There is one way the English might accept a Scottish Prime Minister

Hannan_dan_3 Daniel Hannan is an MEP and one of the founders of Direct Democracy.

I have found it: the philosopher's stone of politics, the elixir of life. There really is an answer to the West Lothian Question. Twenty nine years have passed since Tam Dalyell, the stony Old Etonian who then sat for West Lothian, set the conundrum before Parliament. Scottish devolution, he observed, would lead to a constitutional anomaly, as Westminster MPs with Scottish seats would be able to vote on matters affecting English constituencies, but would have no say over such matters in their own constituencies.

Today, the problem is no longer academic. On two occasions -- over foundation hospitals and again over tuition fees -- the votes of Scottish MPs secured the passage of contentious legislation that did not apply north of the border. And the signs are that the English are becoming miffed. An opinion poll in The Daily Telegraph showed that nearly half of English voters object to the idea of a Scottish Prime Minister -- a finding that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

What, then, is the answer? The only two solutions so far hazarded - a separate English parliament or a wholly independent Scotland - have understandably failed to win widespread support. But there is a third option: localism.

There is no power exercised by the Holyrood legislature under the 1998 Scotland Act that could not, in England, be devolved to a lower level -- either to counties and cities or, better still, to individual citizens.

English councils could, for example reassume responsibility for the relief of poverty, which was considered a municipal function from the Middle Ages until the late 20th century. They could take up the powers of the now defunct Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. They could administer health and education (or at least the financing of these policies: there is no reason why they should directly run schools and hospitals).

All Westminster MPs would then find themselves on an equal footing. True, they would have lost some of their powers. But they would be able to compensate by taking back different powers from judges, quangoes and Eurocrats. The House of Commons would, in its functions at least, resemble the US Congress, concentrating on big, national issues such as defence, immigration and foreign treaties. I suspect that most MPs would regard this as an improvement on their current status as providers of a queue-jumping service for pushy people.

Could our local authorities cope with the increased responsibilities? Absolutely.

Kent has three times the population of Wyoming; yet Wyoming happily runs its own criminal justice, social security and taxation systems. Give councils more power and you will attract a higher calibre of candidate as well as boosting participation at local elections. In Britain, local authorities raise 25 per cent of their budgets and turnout is typically around 30 per cent. In France, those figures are, respectively, 50 and 55 per cent; in Switzerland 85 and 90 per cent.

English devolution is not simply a way to correct the lopsided devolution settlement; it is a meritorious reform in itself. Canvassers from all three parties will privately tell you that they are coming across an unprecedented degree of doorstep cynicism. "Voting doesn't make any difference," say the punters -- and they're right. The questions that impact most tangibly on local communities -- whether to build more houses, where to deploy the police, who goes to which school -- have been removed from the democratic process.

Decisions that would be made at a town meeting in the US are made, in England, by a single minister and then imposed uniformly on the whole country. As well as being unaccountable, the system is inefficient. "To the size of a state there is a limit, as there is to animals, plants and implements," wrote Aristotle, "for none of these can retain its facility if it is too large". The NHS payroll is the size of the population of an average African nation, and its budget considerably higher. No single minister, be he the wisest in Whitehall, can get the most out of such a monstrous organisation.

In Europe, as in North America, conservatives generally stand as the defenders of local particularisms against the bureaucrats in the national capital. There are signs that, after decades of misguided centralism, the Tories might do the same here. David Cameron has promised to place the police under locally elected representatives, to democratise the Crown Prerogative powers and to wind up the regional quangoes and pass their powers downwards. If he follows through, he may find that he has solved the West Lothian Question almost without meaning to.

It would, of course, be open to the Scottish and Welsh electorates to embark on a parallel localist agenda, devolving power to Aberdeenshire, Flintshire and the rest. Either way, the asymmetry of the current dispensation would have been corrected. The English would no longer have anything to complain about. We could all go back to resenting Gordon Brown, not because he sits for a Fifeshire seat, but because he is a miserable girner who has plundered our pensions and given away our gold reserves.

Righting the current constitutional imbalance will be like tapping a pebble out of our shoe. With the irritant removed, we can go back to celebrating the things that we have achieved together: ending the slave trade, bringing law and civilisation to new continents, fighting for the freedom of all Europe's nations.

There will still be occasional squabbles, of course. The relationship between England and Scotland, like that between Johnson and Boswell, has always involved a certain amount of teasing along with the underlying affection. It is a relationship typefied by the Highlander who, observing the rout at Dunkirk, commented tersely: "If the English give in too, this could be a long war".

But, in the last analysis, there is more that unites us than that divides us. For all our quarrels, we share a way of looking at the world. The underlying argument for the Union has not changed in 400 years. It was ably and eloquently advanced by that aboriginal Unionist, James VI and I: "Hath not God first united these kingdoms, both in language and religion and similitude of manners? Hath He not made us all in one island, compassed by one sea?" Amen.

Related link: Ten point briefing on localism.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.