Politics: Mr Blair and the art of not answering questions

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The Independent Online
There is a difference between what interests most voters - what is, in the debased language of modern politics, an "issue" - and what is important politically. The most striking example in the post-war period is sterling: whether it should be a reserve currency, and whether the pound should float or have a fixed rate, and so forth. Every political crisis (rather than factitious crises such as the Profumo affair) has had its origins in the state of the pound. The mortgage rate, the condition of the health service, school building: all are affected by it. Voters are supposed to be interested in these subjects but not in sterling, except as a patriotic flag to be waved at the foreigners from time to time.

Constitutional reform has since (I would say 1918) been put into the same category. It is clearly important but people are not interested in it: best, therefore, to leave it alone. This was not always so. For most of the 19th century and, indeed, till 1914 the principal topics of political debate were the franchise, Ireland and the House of Lords.

Today the Labour Party has embraced constitutional reform as the Liberal Party of old once did. Mr John Major is resisting its lunges with the indignation of an affronted dowager to whom an improper suggestion has just been made. Here we really do have an issue in the true and not in the vulgarised form. The parties disagree objectively not just on one but on four subjects: Scottish and Welsh devolution, a referendum about electoral reform, changing the House of Lords and incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into our law.

But are the voters interested? Do they care? Have they the faintest idea what the politicians are talking about? Mr Major would answer yes to all three questions. He thinks he won the last election partly because he got up on his famous soap box and talked about the unity of the kingdom, conveniently forgetting Northern Ireland. But then, as all politicians say, "Northern Ireland is different", as if that statement automatically excluded it from the discussion without further argument.

Mr Major also thinks he won partly because Mr Neil Kinnock toyed with proportional representation a few days before polling day and so confused everybody. He almost certainly won because of John Smith's Shadow Budget and because many more people did not want Mr Kinnock to be Prime Minister than those who did. But Mr Major thinks the constitution helped him back into No 10. Who are we to argue?

Despite his phrase about a thousand years of history - first used, incidentally, by Hugh Gaitskell when opposing our entry into the Common Market at the Labour conference of 1962 - Mr Major is really interested in money or, rather, in income tax. On Thursday we heard more about the possible fiscal anomalies resulting from Scottish devolution than about all the other projected Labour changes put together; though he did say something about the House of Lords. He accused Labour of wanting to create the biggest quango in the kingdom. This was rich, not to say fruity, coming as it did from the leader of a party which has transformed Great Britain (Scotland and Wales particularly) into a country run virtually entirely by quangos providing jobs for the boys and the girls, and responsible to no one, least of all to the House of Commons.

Nevertheless Mr Major asked some good questions, and Mr Tony Blair failed to answer them; made no attempt to answer them; in fact gloried in his refusal to answer them. The parliamentary sketch writers on Friday thought that this was both highly diverting in itself and most astute of Mr Blair. It showed his cleverness. Why, he was already behaving like a prime minister in evading awkward questions, while Mr Major was behaving like a leader of the opposition in asking them. Such irony!

Whether those voters who are interested in constitutional reform will view matters in the manner of Mr Worldly Wiseman remains to be seen. Mr Blair behaved disgracefully in misleading the House by saying that he would in due course come to the so-called West Lothian question, and then not even making the attempt. This is not clever politics. It is cheating. It is lying to the House about your intentions, making any real debate impossible. I suggest that Madam Speaker have a quiet (or even a noisy) word with Mr Blair.

The West Lothian question is so called after Mr Tam Dalyell, who sat for that constituency and now represents Linlithgow. In the 1970s, when with Mr Kinnock he was opposing the proposals for devolution of the Labour government, Mr Dalyell asked: why should Scottish members at Westminster be allowed to talk about and vote on, say, English education, while English members would not be allowed to talk about and vote on Scottish education, which would have been devolved to the new Scottish parliament? Answer came there none. And answer comes there none today.

The latest information is that Mr Blair intends to leave the question to the new House of Commons, on the somewhat dubious constitutional ground in this connection that Parliament is sovereign. The same questionable doctrine is also being invoked over whether the various constitutional Bills should or should not be taken on the floor of the House. Convention dictates that, as such, they should be: but all kinds of impediments can be erected. In 1968 the joint scheme for the reform of the Lords inaugurated by Lord Carrington and R H S Crossman failed to progress on the floor and duly collapsed. In 1977 the Labour government's first devolution Bill had to be withdrawn when the Commons rejected a guillotine motion. Mr Blair has at least had the foresight to see stormy waters ahead. But to leave it all to the new crew is hardly an answer. As well go into the election with a manifesto which is a perfect and absolute blank on the basis that the new government's programme will have to depend on the new House of Commons!

Manifestly the new House is unlikely to produce any more satisfactory solution to the West Lothian question than previous Houses have done. In a sense there is no solution when there is a sovereign parliament and a devolved legislature, as distinct from a federal parliament and several state legislatures. Mr Paddy Ashdown says there is no more a West Lothian question than a West Belfast question. So what is all the fuss about?

Well, Northern Ireland is now ruled as a colony by Order in Council. In 1922-72, however, it possessed many of the attributes of a sovereign state, including a prime minister, a cabinet and a lord chief justice. Its citizens were not conscripted into the armed forces; nor was their gas nationalised.

At Westminster Northern Ireland was under-represented, with 12 members compared to today's 17. They voted with the Conservatives and, until recently, were counted as part of the normal Conservative strength. Following a Speaker's ruling in the 1920s, British MPs did not discuss matters lying within the exclusive province of the Stormont parliament. The government exercised a similar legislative restraint. Is this what Mr Blair wants for Scotland? I merely ask, with even less hope than Mr Major of receiving any answer.