That Scottish problem again

By attacking Labour's approach to devolution, John Major has raised ser ious questions about how united our kingdom really is. Michael Quinlan and Conr ad Russell argue the pros and cons of dividing up the nation
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Once again devolution is on the political agenda, after John Major's defiant insistence last Friday of the indivisibility of the United Kingdom. The devolution theme is an old one, but its most recent political history centres on the high-profile events of the Seventies.

In the wake of the Kilbrandon Royal Commission, the 1974 Labour government, with a wafer-thin majority over the Conservatives in the February election and a notable upsurge in Scottish National Party numbers at Westminster, committed itself to devolved assemblies for Scotland and Wales. The real political motivation concerned Scotland; the Welsh component was largely me-too-ism, and few people were talking seriously about regional government in England in its own right.

The Scottish problem was not new, but what gave it impetus in the Seventies wereNorth Sea oil and the SNP threat. Now, as then, the issue of devolved government in Britain, however theorists may dress it up, is about how to cope with Scotland.

Why should Scotland need to be "coped with"? It is, of course, physically and psychologically distant from London, and has a justifiably distinct national consciousness. But overlaying these general characteristics are two specific contemporary factors which give rise to the political problem: Scotland nowadays does not much like Conservative government; and when UK Limited does not seem to be doing especially well, demerging in some degree or other looks attractive. All this is particularly sharp when Labour predominance in Scotland seems overwhelming and a distinctively Conservative government has been in power for a long time.

Scotland already has a great deal of decentralisation, reflected in the Scottish Office's wide functions and powers, and in its success in getting more than its due share of public resources compared with the rest of the UK. What still sticks in the throats of many Scots is the England-dominated Westminster Parliament. The solution, as they see it, is to give them their own democratically elected assembly to control a suitable range of governmental functions.

But this leaves the enormous and still unanswered "West Lothian" question, coined by Tam Dalyell, the region's MP. If we take away from Westminster and give to a Scottish Assembly effective law-making power over, say, education, health and transport in Scotland, by what possible right do 70-odd Scottish MPs at Westminster continue to vote on education, health and transport for England? But if they are excluded, there stands to occur a situation - given particularly that while Scotland is usually Labour,England is usually Conservative - in which there is a settled Labour majority at Westminster on some subjects and a Conservative one on others. (That would have been the case for certainly three and probably four of the five parliaments in which Labour has governed since 1945.)

Such a political arrangement would not be coalition, nor even cohabitation. Given the interdependence, especially in tax and expenditure terms, of large areas of public administration, it is simply not possible to run coherent parliamentary government inthis way.

There is, of course, a claim of precedent for Scottish devolution. In Stormont days, up until 1972, Northern Ireland had its own parliament yet still sent to Westminster a set of MPs with no voting restrictions. But there were two crucial differences: firstly, Northern Ireland's Westminster representation was deliberately scaled down by about 30 per cent from strict proportional equality with Britain; as a rough-and-ready way of dealing with the logical deficiencies of the situation. Secondly, NorthernIreland, besides being more obviously separate, is much smaller than Scotland. The scaled-down representation of 12 MPs did not make a key difference at Westminster: even when they were virtually a guaranteed Conservative bloc, they were never enough tocreate a Conservative majority in the United Kingdom over a Labour majority in Great Britain.

In Scotland's case, part of the bargain under which it submerged its independence in the Union has been an over-representation at Westminster. Even if its 72 seats were scaled down on the Stormont basis (as no pro-devolutionist has dared to suggest), there would still be about 40 MPs in the West Lothian position (though with Scotland reduced to that level, Labour would not have won outright in 1964 or at all in 1974).

Our constitution can cope with anomaly on a small scale - the Isle of Man/Channel Islands, or even Stormont - but Scotland is too big. And the problem gets worse if Wales,represented by 38 seats, is towed along.

Fundamentally, the difficulty is that we cannot logically have a semi-federal constitution in which part of the country is governed through a division of power between a higher and lower legislature, and the rest through a unitary legislature. It is difficult enough to have an unevenly federal system, as the Canadians know through their constant stumbling over the Quebec issue.

Might not all these knotty conceptual problems be manageably solved by a good dose of British pragmatism, common sense and tolerance of arrangements short of ideal purism? It would be comforting to believe so, for there is is a real political problem in Scotland. Alas, it is not that easy. What is at issue in the "Westminster" conundrum is political power: who is to govern? That matters enormously to political parties; and it is a pious hope to imagine that serious inequities would not, sooner or later,cause upheaval. An illogical or unfair fudge could not be stable.

Wider regional government enters the argument at this point, by the Scottish back-door. Why not balance things up by awarding devolution all round, the way Spain has tried to deal with the Basque problem? Some Labour ministers in the Seventies saw this as the answer, and the Liberal Democrats still do. But there are several objections.

England is far too big to be a single component of a federation. It has more than 80 per cent of the total UK population; the largest single component to be found now in any substantial developed federation is about 35 per cent (Ontario and New South Wales). So we have to split up England. But on what basis, and with what justification?

England has been a unitary state for 1,000 years. There are no adequate natural or historic divisions reflecting economic, social or cultural distinctness. There is no evident popular desire, and no obvious administrative room, for another tier between Westminster and local government. Even if there were, the scope does not extend to the wide range of government functions - such as maintaining a distinctive legal system - which a Scottish Assembly would certainly expect to exercise; so we would be back,at best, to the Quebec problem of unevenness.

The fact is that the Union of Crown and Parliament between England and Scotland is a unique and peculiar bargain. No one has identified any coherent way of redesigning it without breaking it. It has enabled Scotland to have its turn more than once at imposing on much-larger England an election outcome which was not what England preferred; sauce now for the gander? Devolution on anything like the Seventies model is a position between two stools, an aspiration to evade hard choice. But the real choice - union basically as we have it now, or separation - cannot be avoided.

Michael Quinlan is director of the Ditchley Foundation. In the mid-Seventies, as a member of the Constitution Unit, he worked closely with Labour ministers, including John Smith, on devolution.