Mr Blair might as well flog young offenders on TV

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The Independent Online
It was some woman MP who proposed a few months ago that, as an additional diversion on Saturday nights when the winning numbers in the National Lottery were being announced on television, various young offenders should be flogged, caned or whatever (the precise form of flagellation which the legislator had in mind I have now forgotten). This moved Mr Simon Hoggart to comment in the Guardian that the idea was so wild, so extreme, so off the wall that it could only be a matter of time before it was taken up by Mr Tony Blair and incorporated into Labour party policy.

The idea of having referendums on devolution in Scotland and Wales is not, in itself, like this. It is not wild, extreme or (as Mr Hoggart would put it) off the wall. We have had them before, in 1979, under a Labour government. The Scottish referendum, indeed, brought that government down. But the motives which impel Mr Blair to propose them at this stage are the same as those which might cause him to lend his support to the beating of young criminals on television on Saturday evenings. They are to reassure doubting voters and to outflank the Conservatives.

The Prig Press recognises this; applauds it even. Mr Blair has been very astute. He has outflanked Mr Michael Forsyth, the clever and aggressive Scottish Secretary, who was working up a fair head of steam with his denunciation of the "tartan tax" of 3p in the pound. In fact, so alarmed had the comrades or (if that word is no longer apt) the New Labourists become that some bright spark produced the wheeze that, though the tax-raising powers of the Scottish assembly should remain, they should be placed in suspension for two or three years or whatever term took the fancy of the new Labour government.

Mr Blair will now have no need to avail himself of this device. He will, he says, campaign for a Scottish assembly with tax-raising powers. One might have thought he would have better things to do with his time in the six months immediately after becoming Prime Minister, which is the limit he is setting for holding the Scottish and Welsh referendums. But democracy is not limited by considerations of this kind: that is Mr Blair's reply.

So it is that of the Prig Press also. On Friday the Guardian had a leading article asserting that referendums were of the very essence of the constitution and praising Mr Blair for his high devotion to democratic principle. These views would be slightly more impressive if the paper had been campaigning week in and week out for referendums on devolution. But, as far as I am aware, it has been doing nothing of the kind. It has been content to tag along behind whatever happens to be Labour party policy.

In all this there is, both with the papers and with the Labour leaders, an element of trying to have it all ways. Mr Blair has, it seems, been not only clever but principled as well. No doubt it is possible to be both. As Lord Callaghan once comfortingly observed to me: "I always find in this life that if you do the right thing it turns out to be best for you in the end." Doubtless also benign consequences can result from impure motives. But has Mr Blair been as clever as all that?

He needs to retain and, if possible, win seats both in Scotland and in Wales. For the Conservative Party is the English party, while the Labour Party is the British party. Only in 1945 and 1966 has Labour secured a majority of seats in England. In the other elections which the party has won, it was three short in 1950, 10 in 1964, 22 in February 1974 and four in October 1974. Under a consolidating Act of 1986, the Boundary Commissioners are instructed to have a minimum of 71 seats for Scotland and 35 for Wales. The present figures are respectively 72 and 38. There are 17 seats for Northern Ireland.

No maximum or minimum figure is laid down for England. The number of seats is arrived at through the application of the "electoral quota", which is determined by dividing the electorate by the existing number of constituencies. At the next election the total number of MPs will rise from 651 to 659. The present position is that Scotland and Wales are over- represented (Scotland more so than Wales), England is under-represented and Northern Ireland is about right.

There are those who believe that a devolved assembly entails lower representation at Westminster. This was the position with Northern Ireland when the old Stormont parliament existed in 1922-72. My own view is that it is impossible to arrive at any just diminution of seats calculated on the basis of the functions performed by the devolved assembly. If it is a question of going to war, Scotland and Wales are as involved as England: rather more so, proportionately, if you take into account the national composition of our armed forces. Likewise with higher education: for young English people go to universities in Scotland and Wales, and vice-versa.

The so-called West Lothian question - that if English MPs are prohibited from discussing Scottish matters, then why should Scottish MPs be allowed to discuss English matters? - is a perfectly proper one to ask. But it is rather more complicated to answer than its originators seem to realise. There is certainly little evidence that Mr Blair, his shadow Scottish Secretary Mr George Robertson, or the various other Scotsmen who adorn the Shadow Cabinet (there is only one Welshman, Mr Ron Davies) have given much of their attention to these difficult matters.

Mr Blair started off by hinting that a devolved assembly would mean fewer seats for Scotland, though the number of Welsh seats would presumably remain the same because the Welsh assembly would not possess any very substantial powers. But now Mr Blair has done an about-turn. Mr Robertson resorts to bluster, claiming it is "obvious" that Scotland needs a higher representation at Westminster - irrespective, it appears, of whether it has an assembly or not.

I should settle for fair representation for Scotland and Wales, with or without assemblies. This could be achieved under the existing rules by cutting back the numbers of Scottish and Welsh seats to their statutory minimum, and by increasing English representation. Successive Conservative governments since 1979 could have achieved these ends quite properly, without any need to resort to those sharp practices at which they were and are adept. Why they did not choose to do so is one of the mysteries of politics.

My own guess is that Mr Blair will lose some Scottish support, which will move either to the Liberal Democrats or to the SNP. If he wins the election, his proposal for an assembly will be accepted but its tax-raising powers will be rejected. This may be illogical of the Scots but that is what I think they will do. In Wales his electoral support will remain constant, even though my fellow countrymen have no hankering after an inferior assembly. And afterwards they will vote it down, as they did so conclusively on St David's Day 1979.