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Democracy for England!
Devolution of power to Scotland and Wales has led to some tricky questions in London
James Osborne (osborne)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-04 13:01 (KST)   
What is the United Kingdom? This is the fundamental question to ask right now. The classic definition of the U.K. is this:

"The United Kingdom is a political union made up of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, and Wales on the island of Great Britain, and Northern Ireland."

Two significant events have taken place under the current Labour government. In the 1997 national election, it was in the Labour Party's manifesto that they would bring referendums in both Scotland and Wales with the aim of devolving power to both these countries.

After winning the election they were true to their word. Both Scotland and Wales held referendums and both chose to have their own national assemblies with more devolved power. Wales voted for devolution by a small majority.

Scotland has more devolved power because Scotland has always retained it's own justice and education systems. Today the Scottish national assembly has powers over most domestic affairs, including education, justice, health and transport.

Until devolution a law passed in Parliament was applicable in all regions. Now domestic law passed in parliament mostly only refers to England. A good summary would be to say that the U.K. is now a federal state in all but name. This has raised some concerns, most notably what is called the "West Lothian question."

The West Lothian question was posed by Tam Dalyell, M.P. for the Scottish constituency of Linlithgow during a debate over Scottish devolution in the 1970s, during an earlier attempt to devolve power to Scotland. The question is twofold.

Firstly, how can it be right that M.P.s elected to the London parliament from Scottish constituencies have no ability to affect the issues that have been devolved to the Scottish parliament, when English M.P.s have greater power with regard to their own English constituencies?

Secondly, how can it be right that M.P.s representing Scottish constituencies in the London parliament have the power to vote on issues affecting England, even those that don't affect Scotland, but English M.P.s do not have the power to vote on those particular Scottish issues?

With the passing of the Scotland Act in 1998, and the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, this question has now become a very real problem.

For example in 2004 the Higher Education Act was passed by Tony Blair's Labour government. It was controversial because it involved a change in the way that students paid for their university education.

Both of the main opposition parties voted against the bill but because the Labour party had a majority of M.P.s in the London parliament, the law was passed.

However, the government would have lost the vote if the Scottish M.P.s had abstained from voting. Ironically the legislation did not apply to Scotland.

In other words England now has less democracy than Scotland and Wales. It would appear the U.K. is a federal state, without federal institutions.

Three ways have been proposed to solve the situation.

It has been suggested that there should be two classes of M.P.s., an idea that Prime Minister Tony Blair is against. Scottish M.P.s would not be allowed to vote on issues only affecting England but all M.P.s could vote for issues impacting the entire United Kingdom.

Another suggestion is that there should be fewer Scottish M.Ps. Simply reducing the number of Scottish M.P.s in the London parliament will mean that their votes on English issues will not be as decisive. However, this option does not really solve the issue because even a lower number of Scottish M.P.s could swing a vote.

One of the boldest options would be the creation of a devolved English parliament with powers like those of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly.

The most radical solution would be to give each country independence and break up the United Kingdom.

This issue has become extremely important because Scottish M.P.s are now in charge of government departments that decide English affairs. Gordon Brown, a Scottish M.P. and likely successor to Tony Blair, controls English finances in his position as Chancellor of the Exchequer. This means that he has a say on education, healthcare and transport in England, issues that are all controlled by the Scottish parliament in his own constituency.

John Reid, another Scottish M.P. is head of the Home Office and also has direct control over English affairs that are handled by the Scottish parliament in his own constituency.

The Labour party's chief opposition, the Conservatives headed by David Cameron, have set up a "democracy task force" under the leadership of Kenneth Clarke, a former finance minister.

Ken Clarke said of the current system:

"If a man landed from Mars and saw the current system, he would not say that democracy was working properly."

The task force will be reporting back in September with their solution to the West Lothian question and it is likely that it will become Conservative policy into the next General Election in 2008/9.

The problem is acute as it cuts deep into the world of politics. Of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster, 40 are Labour seats. Labour's current majority is 64. Hence, Labour's majority would be very small indeed if it were not for the Scottish MPs.

In comparison the Conservatives have only one Scottish M.P., and always seem to do very poorly in Scotland.

This whole situation will need resolving within the next few years as resentment over the West Lothian question is growing in England.

Perhaps the one thing we can conclude for certain is this. Now that devolution of power has happened in Scotland and Wales there is no going back. Events are quickly forcing change. Watch this space.
Find out more about the issues raised in this article:
BBC News
Wikipedia
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter James Osborne

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