Conservative Diary

« Liam Fox says Britain should stop apologising for its history and forge closer relations with countries beyond the EU | Main | Live blog of Trevor McDonald Meets David Cameron »

What would happen if England voted blue - but the Government stayed red?

I've written two pieces to date about electoral issues that need urgent attention from a newly-elected Conservative Government.  The first, here, was about fair sizes for constituencies; the second, here, about fair ways of voting.  This third article is about a problem so large that some don't believe it to be a problem at all.  It's the size of an elephant in a room - and is sometimes treated in much the same way.

Since fairness is our theme, let's introduce the problem with a question: putting aside the controversy about the Barnett formula - and, for that matter, the relationship between England and Wales - how should a Conservative Government make the Union with Scotland more fair?

Ken Clarke's Democracy Task Force proposed that the imbalances brought about in Parliament by Scottish devolution be put right as follows.  On matters affecting England alone, all MPs should vote on the second reading of a bill.  At the bill's committee and report stages, however, only MPs with English constituencies ("English MPs") should vote.  Once again, all MPs should vote on the bill at third reading.  The idea is that by then the bill has been made acceptable to English views by being amended, if necessary, by English MPs.  The Commons, and by extension the Lords, must then take it or leave it.

There are two main practical questions about the proposal.

The first is: what happens if, in a Commons in which MPs from Scotland ("Scottish MPs") hold the balance, they join with other MPs at Third Reading to vote down a bill which had been made acceptable to English views by amendment at committee and report?  For the sake of the argument, I'm prepared to treat this question as academic, believing that the Democracy Task Force's proposal is as well-crafted as any of its kind can be.

The second is: what happens if these bills sail through Third Reading unamended - but are then in the hands of an Executive of a different political party to that which dominates the legislature?

Let's put the question more plainly: what happens if the Commons is Conservative in its English seats, but the Government is Labour - because Labour has enough seats in Scotland (plus those it holds in England and Wales) to form an administration?

This second question can't simply be waved away as academic.  I'm not suggesting that such an outcome is a probable outcome in the election that will shortly be called.  I believe that we're likely to form a Government, though obviously victory mustn't be treated as a given.

But the combination of a Labour Government and a Conservative English legislature could well be in place after some future election.  One could even argue that it's likely to happen sooner rather than later.  After all, we won a majority of votes in England even last time, when we got a poor result.  So it's possible to imagine us holding a majority of seats in England for the foreseeable future.

In such circumstances, would English voters simply shrug their shoulders, and accept a Labour Government they hadn't elected?

They might.  After all, they've accepted Labour's devolution settlement to date without its unfairnesses becoming a main theme in elections, or showing up as a pressing issue in opinion polls.

On the other hand, they might not.  The mix of a Labour Government and a Conservative English legislature would illustrate and dramaticise those unfairnesses in a new way: a spotlight would be thrown on them.  It's easy to imagine both the old and new media stoking a constitutional crisis.

There are no easy answers to the unfairnesses thrown up by Blair and Brown's devolution settlement.  The only one on offer is that trumpeted by Scottish and English nationalists alike - separation.  This proves that easy answers aren't always the best and are often the worst.  The Union has served its peoples well.

Before it, relations between England and Scotland were inflamed by war and tension.  Since it came into being, they've been soothed by peace, prosperity and common endeavour.  Perhaps separation wouldn't mean tension (let alone strife), but we're bigger together in the Union, and would be smaller without it.  We're a Conservative and Unionist Party.

None the less, the Union and the Blair/Brown devolution settlement aren't the same thing - indeed, the second poses problems for the first, as I've tried to show.  The Democracy Task Force proposals are sensible.  It's interesting that only 19 per cent of Conservative Intelligence's panel of experts believe that putting them into effect will be a priority for a Conservative Government - a relatively low figure.  But whether they’re a priority or not, they don't provide a long-term solution to the potential problem of a red Government and blue English legislature.

There are three main possible policy approaches:

First, do nothing.  And at some point, Labour Ministers administer Conservative English legislation.  This would surely lead to constitutional instability, and perhaps crisis.

Second, create an English Parliament.  This option has its passionate supporters.  But it poses as many problems as it solves.  Systems in which a single national Parliament sits alongside smaller Assemblies - composed usually on a regional basis - can work effectively in countries with distinct regions and a decentralised settlement.  The balance between the Bundestag and the Lander, for example, works well enough in Germany.  But Britain has a tradition of strong central rule, no history of regional government (Labour's regional experiment has been a fiasco), and government concentrated in one city, London, that dominates the economy and culture of the whole greater south-east.

Furthermore, England has some 85 per cent of the UK's population.  It's the powerhouse of the UK economy.  In the medium to long term, an English First Minister wouldn't be able to resist using England's economic muscle as a means of extracting concessions from the UK's Prime Minister.  One can argue that this is exactly what should happen in the event of an English Parliament being brought into being.  But it's hard to hold at the same time that institutionalising tension in such a way would be less rather than more likely to lead to separation.

The third and final option would be to reduce further the number of Scottish constituencies - the solution punted by the IPPR.  It would be seized upon by the SNP as an anti-Scottish act.  And it would still leave in place the possibility of Labour Ministers administering Conservative English legislation.  But that possibility would be reduced, and the move could perhaps be sold to English voters as a fair trade-off for red Ministers occasionally administering blue English legislation.

An incoming Conservative Government must have priorities.  Fair sizes for constituencies and fair ways of voting are two.  Measures to ensure both could be drawn up relatively swiftly.  They should feature in the first Queen's Speech if we win.  How to ensure a Union fair for all is less straightforward - and in the event of a Conservative administration the problem of Labour Ministers and a blue English legislature wouldn't arise.  But it would linger for the future.  For what it's worth, I'm inclined to believe that the IPPR solution is the least damaging means of making the Union more fair.  Whether I'm right on this point or not, the Party will have to produce some proposals during the next Parliament.

Paul Goodman


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