Deborah Orr: Labour's passionate defence of the Union is a defence of its own Scottish power base

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The Independent Online

Considering that it's so intractable, the West Lothian question has a stunningly easy answer. Act like decent and honourable ladies and gentlemen, Scottish MPs. Simply look to your conscience and abstain when legislation that has no legitimacy in your own constituencies is being voted on. You all must know that it is the right and democratic thing to do. Yes, it would be a bit weird when one couldn't vote on policies one helped to formulate oneself, but, hey, that's devolution, and it isn't going to go away.

Malcolm Rifkind, with his proposal for an English Grand Committee, is suggesting much the same thing, in a more complicated manner. His idea runs aground immediately in just the same way as mine does, because it would, of course, be even more absurd if the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and a clutch of other British government ministers were barred from deciding policy in crucial matters for the vast majority of the population they are supposed to govern, let alone voting on it. It would be every bit as absurd as the present situation, in which they are not barred, even by gentlefolk's agreement, from doing the latter. And very occasionally, Labour ought to admit, it really is quite unsustainably absurd.

The English have every right to be angry about some of the contradictions thrown up by Scottish devolution, because they are sometimes deeply punitive. Much of the grumbling over money is unhelpful, since Scotland has to find the money for its more expensive policies out of a predetermined pot, and therefore has to make savings elsewhere to pay for them. I am in favour of fiscal autonomy for Scotland, wherever that may lead, and not just to stop the carping of devolution's sulky critics. But in some cases the grumbling is perfectly justified, because it has led to the English being afforded the same status as foreigners in Britain, which under the present fiscal regime is wrong and highly discriminatory.

Tuition fees are the most egregious example of the social-democratic deficit that is sometimes apparent, and perhaps the most genuinely problematic parting of the ways that has so far come about. St Andrews, in Fife, for example, is the only British university with a marine laboratory on site, and the best option for a British citizen wishing to study marine biology in Britain. But an English student has to pay tuition fees to access this unique facility, while the Scottish student working alongside her does not, even though each set of parents is funding higher education in Britain through their taxes. The English student might as well have been born and bred in outer Mongolia for all the Union means in this situation.

The same can be said, of course, for any academic subject on offer. But it seems all the more deeply unfair and contradictory when applied to such a scarce resource. And this has come about purely because so very many Scottish Labour MPs voted for the tuition fees their own children do not have to pay. Without the Caledonian block vote by around 50 Scottish Labour MPs, the Government would have lost by miles. The SNP First Minister, Alex Salmond, suggests that if England likes what it sees in Scotland, it too can adopt Scottish policies. But, particularly in the case of tuition fees, it was Scots who played the pivotal part in the creation of the division.

Jack McConnell, the former Scottish First Minister, claims that the blocking of tuition fees is the achievement during his tenure that he is most proud of. Young people in his own old constituency – and my home town, Motherwell – have the right to free higher education, as do the children of Frank Roy, the MP for the same place. Yet Roy voted in favour of tuition fees for people domiciled in England. The two men are in the same party, claiming to represent the interests of the same people, but backing entirely contradictory legislation. How can the Labour Party claim to be Unionist when it is knee-deep in such obviously self-serving contradictions?

All credit to the Conservatives, Unionists also, who are at least having a decent grapple with the long-predicted post-devolution anomaly that they recognise as having stirred up English resentment. All the Labour Party can come up with is a dark warning that such talk can only lead to the break-up of the Union, which is exactly what their own Scottish member, Tam Dalyell pointed out to them 30 years ago.

The claim is not necessarily true, and all sorts of options for tweaking devolution can be explored. On the NHS, for example, Labour and the Conservatives have expressed an interest in establishing an independent board to oversee the service. That, in some form, might provide a mechanism for defusing some resentments while at the same time returning responsibility to the frontline, which both parties say they want to do. Perhaps Labour is aware that the Conservatives have the advantage on them here, because they champion small government, and in a devolved nation one would want a British government to be as small as possible.

In some respects, devolution has caused more problems that might have been anticipated, as Scotland has always been devolved in some respects, having always retained its own education system, legal system and church. One suspects, though, that Labour was just complacently certain that Scotland would be grateful for its bit of freedom, remain solidly Labour, and not cause any trouble.

Yet devolution has caused more trouble for Labour than any other player. It may already be leading to the break-up of the Labour Party, which is no less sustainable under the present mish-mash than the Union. The Scottish Labour Party is supposed to be a part of the British Labour Party. But the same constituents in Scotland are represented quite differently by Scottish Labour MPs than by British ones. It's an aspect of the West Lothian question that bothers people less, but it is still utterly miserable that Labour is so happy to maintain such contradictions in its own organisation.

It's perfectly plain, of course, that Labour's passionate defence of the Union is merely a passionate defence of its own Scottish power base. Even the simple solution of Scottish abstension – perhaps with some sort of mechanism whereby Government Ministers are still allowed to vote on English matters – curdles the hearts of all Labour MPs because they know that they would have trouble getting any devolved legislation through, unless their English majority was of unlikely mass.

Yet if the Labour Party wants to hang on to the Union, then it is going to have to stop being so Janus-faced over this issue. There are loads of ways of "saving the Union", if indeed this is so important (not that I think it is). But ignoring the fact that the Union is gradually coming apart anyway, and as a result of Labour policies and Labour self-interest, is certainly not one of them.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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