Who Should Pay for Westminster?

One of the ways in which Scotland does not get as good a deal as the UK government’s GERS figures would suggest is that various infrastructure projects, almost entirely in England, are classified as being for the benefit of the whole of the UK. Examples include renovating London sewers and the HS2 rail line which will not come within a hundred miles of Scotland. Although very few such projects are in, or of any significant benefit to, Scotland, Scotland gets charged a per capita share of the costs in the GERS figures, and does not receive any Barnett consequential payments in connection with them. I want to look at a slightly less obvious version of this. (Once again, I will keep the discussion simpler by pretending that the UK comprises only Scotland and England.)
The Westminster Parliament is the Parliament for the whole of the UK, and therefore it might seem reasonable that Scotland should be charged a per capita share of its running costs, but I believe there are reasons why Scotland’s contribution should be somewhat less. I shall start with the less important reason.
The nature of the job requires Scottish MPs to spend much of their time in London, and so a significant part of their expenses and some their salaries will be spent there, to the economic benefit of England. A similar situation will apply with members of the House of Lords, with the additional complication that those members who are resident in Scotland may be less likely to attend the Lords regularly than those who live in or near London, and so will collect fewer £300 tax-free attendance allowances. Apart from the politicians, the Houses of Parliament employ numerous people to clean and maintain the building, to staff the numerous bars and dining rooms (all subsidised by taxpayers) and to provide assistance to the politicians. The economic benefit from the wages of all these people goes to England, not Scotland.

Where Scotland receives a disproportionately small percentage of the economic benefit from UK government expenditure, Scotlands share of that expenditure should be reduced to compensate for this. I assume that this was at least part of the reason why the original, pre-devolution version of the Barnett formula allocated slightly more money to Scotland than would have been expected if it had been strictly proportional to population.
The most important consideration is one which should be highlighted by talk of EVEL or ‘English Votes for English Laws’. As a result of of the introduction of devolution without any move towards some kind of federal system, the Westminster Parliament divides its time between being the UK Parliament and being a de facto English Parliament. (Before devolution, it also at times acted as a Scottish Parliament when debating laws that would apply only to Scotland – and there was nothing then to stop English MPs voting on such laws, no SVSL.) The cost of the Scottish Parliament is met from the Scottish budget, and so it is only fair that the cost of the Westminster Parliament, when it is dealing with matters which concern only England, should come out of the English budget.
If EVEL is introduced, it will be necessary to formally define when the Commons are dealing with UK business and when they are dealing with English business. It should therefore be possible to work out over the course of a year what percentage of the time that Parliament has acted as the English Parliament, and reduce the charge to Scotland accordingly. (One could assume that the percentages will be similar for the Lords.)
There has been talk of the need for a major renovation of the Palace of Westminster, with the cost being estimated at £3 billion, perhaps rising to as much as £10 billion (yes, £10,000,000,000) if it is necessary to move Parliament to alternative accommodation while the work is carried out; under the present system Scotland will be charged at least £250 million. Yet again, there will doubtless be very little economic benefit to Scotland from this work, even if any of the contracts are awarded to Scottish companies, but a great deal for London. Why should Scotland be paying to create jobs in England, when the reverse rarely happens? Why should Scotland pay a full share of the cost of renovating a building which for a significant part of the time accommodates an English Parliament?
I cannot help wondering whether, if the Palace of Westminster is really in such a poor condition, it would be cheaper to build a replacement elsewhere (not necessarily in London – other English cities could compete for the privilege). They could invite a foreign architect to design something a bit more up to date, preferably without bars to discourage legislating while under the influence. Then the present buildings could be converted into something like a hotel and conference centre, or, if they are as unsound as the estimated cost of renovation suggests, replaced with a nice new office block. If the reason for preferring to renovate the Palace of Westminster is to preserve a tourist attraction, then why should Scotland pay for that?

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Who Sets the Rules?

Regrettably, I feel compelled to give what some might find a rather pessimistic assessment of the current situation with regards to Scottish independence.

It is likely that Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement for two reasons. Firstly, he and his Westminster cronies were confident that Scotland would vote against independence by a comfortable margin, as was predicted by the opinion polls at that time. Secondly, they expected that losing the referendum would be a major setback for the independence movement in general, and the SNP in particular, as was the case in 1979 following the first devolution referendum. Events proved them very wrong. The referendum result was much closer than they originally expected, and might well have been Yes had they not ignored the purdah rules by shifting the goalposts at the last minute, before promptly shifting them back almost to their original position. They must have been horrified at the resulting surge in membership, and support as shown by opinion polls, for the pro-independence parties.

Opinion polls since the referendum indicate that if another referendum were to be held now, the result would probably be Yes. There is little chance that the Westminster mob will agree to another referendum, as long as they are likely to lose it, perhaps not even when a ‘political generation’ has gone by. There will almost certainly be no Edinburgh Agreement Mark II. The Scottish Government could try to hold a referendum, but it is probable that it would be ruled outside their competence to spend public money on it, since constitutional matters are amongst the many powers still reserved to Westminster. Even if a referendum were to be held, Westminster would be free to treat it as no more than a glorified opinion poll.

Another option is to turn an election into a plebiscite, whereby the SNP might make independence the most important part of their election manifesto, declaring in advance that a majority vote for the SNP would be taken as a mandate for independence. This would be a gamble, because while it might gain them some votes from independence supporters who would not otherwise vote for the SNP, it would also cost them votes amongst people who support many of the SNP’s policies but are wary of independence. Again, the real problem is that Westminster could, and almost certainly would, refuse to accept such a result as a valid mandate or to enter into negotiations with the Scottish Government over independence.

Another hope is that Scotland will return mostly SNP MPs at the next General Election, who, in the event of a hung parliament, might hold the balance of power at Westminster. However, it would be folly for the SNP to form any kind of an alliance with the Tories, as they would probably lose much of their support, just as the LibDems have done. On previous form, Labour would consider a deal with the SNP as too high a price to pay for forming a government; after the last election they preferred being in opposition to trying to form a rainbow coalition which would have included the SNP. Perhaps there would have to be a minority government, and the SNP contingent could try to make enough of a nuisance of themselves that English MPs would decide to get rid of them by agreeing to Scottish independence. This would be a risky tactic, and the response to it might all too easily be a Tory/Labour alliance. After all, there is very little ideological difference between the Tories and Labour.

There was one good opportunity for an amicable re-negotiation of the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and that has gone. It is difficult to see any easy route to independence in the present political climate. The UK Government is becoming steadily more authoritarian, introducing new laws and widespread surveillance, supposedly aimed at preventing terrorism, which could easily be turned against any dissent. The electorate in England is apparently becoming more right-wing and xenophobic, judging by the rise of UKIP, and some of this xenophobia manifests itself as antagonism towards Scotland. The UK economy is being catastrophically mismanaged, and might suffer a major collapse, especially if the UK decides to leave the EU.

It is my opinion that the stage may well be reached, within the next few years, when a unilateral declaration of independence, with all its risks and disadvantages, will be the least bad option for Scotland, especially if the UK votes to leave the EU but Scotland does not. Even the possibility of a UDI, which could be damaging to the rest of the UK, might just be what is needed for Westminster to agree to negotiate on Scottish independence. What this means is that we cannot meekly agree to play by Westminster’s rules if we are to have any real hope of gaining our independence. One of those rules will be that Scotland can only become independent with Westminster’s permission – which is is unlikely to be granted willingly. (Westminster tends to have two sets of rules, lax for themselves and strict for others. If Alex Salmond had announced something comparable to the ‘Vow’ just before the referendum, I have little doubt that he would have been in serious trouble for breaking the purdah rules.)

Recently some SNP councillors made the valid point that the Smith Commission report is deeply unsatisfactory. (It would have been unsatisfactory even if the supposedly independent commission had not had some of its recommendations vetoed by Westminster before the report was produced.) They set fire to one copy of the report, and disposed of the remains safely and tidily in a litter bin, thereby actually managing to get their protest reported. The Unionists reacted to this with manufactured outrage, as though it had been a copy of the Bible that had been sacrilegiously destroyed, or a Union Jack hat had been burned, rather than a report. Nicola Sturgeon reacted by condemning the councillors’ actions and suspending them from the SNP. I believe this to be a mistake; she has let the Unionists set the rules. If one gives in to a bully, the bully will be encouraged to persist with his bullying. Now SNP activists may feel the need to be overly cautious about all they say and do, lest the Unionists find some justification for pretending to be offended.

Above all, if the SNP leadership are not willing to defy the the Unionists, and defend their own supporters, over such a minor matter, it does not augur well for their willingness to defy the Unionists on more important matters. On the contrary, it will encourage the Unionists to continue denying Scotland the autonomy the the majority of her people want, whether that be through devo-max or independence.

Could EVEL be Evil?

(In this post, for the sake of simplicity, I am going to ignore Wales and Northern Ireland, and pretend that the UK consists of just Scotland and England.)

I am not disappointed by the Smith Commission’s report, simply because I never expected anything significantly better. The already limited additional powers it proposes will probably be cut back as the legislation makes its way through Westminster, as happened with the Calman Commission’s proposals; more generous proposals would just have been cut back even more. Indeed, there is no guarantee yet that the necessary legislation will be passed at all. If the next UK government were to be a Tory/UKIP coalition, UKIP might well manage to block it, probably with significant support from both Tory and Labour back-bench MPs.

In the meantime, as some kind of quid pro quo for the ‘extensive’ new powers the Scottish Parliament is supposed to be getting, Cameron has his sights set on gaining some advantage over Labour with English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), with the claim that this is necessary to end the possibility of Scottish MPs voting on legislation which applies only to England. No doubt he will wish to push this through Parliament before the next election, if he possibly can, as a hedge against the Tories losing.

Ironically, the justification for EVEL may mostly disappear after the election, if some recent opinion polls are a good guide to how the Scottish electorate will vote next May, since the SNP have a policy of not voting on matters which do not affect Scotland. It is Labour who have been guilty of imposing legislation on England with the help of their Scottish MPs.

I have read pro-independence blogs which accept the need for EVEL to end the unfairness encapsulated in the infamous West Lothian Question, but I am not convinced that EVEL is the right solution to the problem. This could turn out to be a case where the cure is worse than the disease, from a Scottish point of view. Much will depend on the eventual details of EVEL.

One version of EVEL that was proposed some time ago was that English bills should receive a fourth reading after which only English MPs would be allowed to vote. This would only be a partial solution, as presumably Scottish MPs might be able to kill a bill at an earlier stage by voting against it, if only a small majority of English MPs were in favour of it. Also, this would require additional Parliamentary time.

A more realistic version would be that Scottish MPs would be barred from voting at any stage on English bills. This might seem reasonably innocuous, but the danger is that, given the asymmetric nature of the UK, purely English legislation will often have significant, albeit indirect, consequences for Scotland. Also, a bill might deal with matters which are partially devolved to the Scottish Parliament, particularly finance (although this could perhaps be avoided by splitting it into two separate bills, one for the UK and one for England). Could this result in Scottish MPs being barred from voting on legislation which mostly affects England but contains some provisions which apply to Scotland?

If EVEL is implemented, it is only going to make much difference, from an English point of view, when there is a Labour government, or a coalition led by Labour, which does not have a majority of English seats. A situation where the opposition has a majority for a significant part of the business of the Commons should be interesting, to say the least.

It could easily be argued that if Scottish MPs are not allowed to vote on an English bill, then they should not be permitted to participate in debates on that bill. If that were to be the case, then Scottish MPs would truly be reduced to a second class status at Westminster. How could MPs be appointed as government ministers if they are not allowed to participate in some debates relevant to their ministerial responsibilities? Of course, this is not a problem for departments such as defence which deal with matters reserved to Westminster, or with others which deal with matters such as health which are mostly devolved. In the first case there could be no objection to a Scottish MP being appointed, while in the second a Scottish MP would presumably not be appropriate even without EVEL. The problem is with, for example, finance which is partly devolved. In this more extreme version of EVEL, some cabinet positions, such as that of Chancellor of the Exchequer, might only be open to English MPs. The crucial point is that it could make it impossible for a Scottish MP ever to be Prime Minister, or even leader of any party which might win a general election.

If Scottish MPs were reduced to a second class status at Westminster, formally prohibited from participating in some of the business of the House of Commons and effectively blocked from holding certain offices in the Government (including that of Prime Minister), would that be acceptable to the people of Scotland? Would it even be compatible with the Treaty of Union?

I would argue that no version of EVEL will do anything to rectify a fundamental problem with the Westminster Parliament, which is that some of the time it is acting as the UK Parliament and at other times it is, in effect, the English Parliament; there may even be times when the two roles are not clearly separated. There is only one solution to that problem, short of Scottish independence, and that is some kind of federal system which includes a new English Parliament. The UK Parliament would then have a reduced workload; its MPs could be reduced in number and the anachronistic, undemocratic House of Lords abolished to free up accommodation for the English Parliament.

Two final thoughts. Firstly, if some form of EVEL is implemented, it would make sense for it to apply to the House of Lords as well. Why should Scottish peers be allowed to vote on English laws, if Scottish MPs are not? Of course, it is easy to define a Scottish MP as someone elected in a Scottish constituency, regardless of where they were born, but it would be trickier to define a Scottish peer, and so I guess that EVEL will be confined to the Commons.

Secondly, since the Westminster Parliament acts as the English Parliament for some of the time, and the Scottish Parliament is paid for out of the Scottish budget, Scotland should not also have to pay a full per capita share of the running costs of the Houses of Parliament – a particularly relevant point when there is talk of £3 billion refurbishment being needed.