Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The West Yorkshire Question

Despite my years of frothing outrage at the cynicism and cruelty of the UK Conservative Party, even I was genuinely shocked at David Cameron's reaction to the Scottish referendum result. No sooner had the dust settled on the PM's desperate bid to keep the UK together he was there again, putting the boot in on his political opponents. Labour had wheeled out the big guns to save his Premiership, and his instinctive response was to promise a constitutional reform that could conceivably prevent Labour ever governing the UK with a majority again. Of course, Labour had no choice but to do all it could to win the vote for No, for obvious reasons of parliamentary arithmetic. But now they find themselves skewered on the so-called West Lothian question as the Tories promise 'English votes for English laws'.

There is a superficial appeal to the WLQ just as there is often an instinctive rejection of 'postcode lotteries' in healthcare. Britons are quite relaxed about inequality of incomes and opportunities, but the formal equality of process is something they are quite attached to. Why should Scots get to vote on English health and education when the English can't vote on theirs? It's not fair. Of course, the reason we are in this situation to begin with is that for years - specifically between 1979-1997, and on 'reserved matters' from 2010 to now - the English were deciding for Scotland despite having no real mandate from Scotland to do so. But the English are the English. We didn't get where we are today by sharing power around.

The problem with 'English votes for English laws' is that it is so transparently a power-grab by the Conservative party. Aware that without Scotland, they would have every chance of a majority in the next parliament, the Tories are seizing the moment, with the cover of resolving the Scottish mess. They could manage to keep the Union together, but cement the dominance of England, and their own - victory from the jaws of defeat. The problem is, the logic of EVEL is actually an insidious one from their point of view. Why stop at England? Why not extend the logic of the West Lothian question to Northern Ireland, whose unionist majority in Westminster has regularly delivered parliamentary support to the Conservatives? Still better, why not consider all the representative iniquities of the UK constitution, such as the unaccountable institutions of the City of London, or the voting rights of the Church of England hierarchy in the House of Lords?

In fact what the West Lothian question does is turn the spotlight on the UK's wildly undemocratic constitution. Until now, English voters in the North of England or in major cities have not tended to see their plight in terms of territorial difference. But if with EVEL non-Tory areas felt that they were effectively condemned to permanent opposition this would be unlikely to hold. After 1979, Conservative support collapsed in Scotland, but also became increasingly territorially differentiated in England, both between North and South, and between cities and the suburbs and countryside. Will working class voters in Northern England accept a centralised state with a locked-in Tory majority? The hope of an eventual Labour victory kept England together through the 1980s and 1990s, but do we really think Liverpool, Bradford and Sheffield, or even inner London for that matter, will allow themselves to be ruled by the Tory shires forever?

The WLQ reminds us that we have an improvised, cobbled-together constitution. Devolution creates imbalances, largely because we lack any state-wide decentralised institutions of the kind that have allowed France, Spain and Italy to recognise territorial distinctiveness whilst maintaining a functioning central state. Resolving the WLQ does nothing but highlight how our constitution entrenches power amongst a metropolitan, Oxbridge-trained elite backed by the Southern English middle class. The rest of England - galvanised perhaps by the sight of an even more ridiculous old Etonian in Number 10? - could start to ask the West Yorkshire question: why should a region that has always voted Labour always get a Tory government?