What happens after the UK election? No-one has any real idea at this point, of course. Even when we see the results, much will depend on the precise Parliamentary arithmetic, and on what the parties choose to do. Personally, I’m sceptical that we’ll be in a position where Plaid Cymru and the SNP can actually make a difference to many Westminster votes, assuming there is a hung parliament, although some of today’s polls suggest that could happen. (Even if the number of Plaid and SNP MPs is enough to give the Conservatives a majority, I suspect those parties will find it hard to make themselves more attractive a supporter than other parties). However, it is important to start thinking about the territorial implications of a new government. As Guy Lodge of IPPR points out here, there’s a significant likelihood that any new Parliament is going to be split along both territorial and party lines, with a Conservative majority in England, if not in Parliament as a whole. Guy’s right that, at least in certain circumstances, that could have serious consequences. If there is a hung parliament in which Labour and Liberal Democrats are able to outvote the Tories in Westminster, their ability to do so will depend on the votes of Scottish MPs. That means that the West Lothian question, and related issues of legitimacy, may well be part of the political landscape once again after the election.
The first point is that this is a question of how the political parties choose to behave. They can decide whether to raise this as an issue or not. However, this is an issue the Conservatives may find it hard to avoid kicking into play. It’s a long-running Conservative concern, prominently discussed in party debates during the last Parliament, with considerable resonance among party members and supporters. Their manifesto commits a Conservative government to introducing
new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.
The problem they face in pursuing this is that such action risks a serious backlash in Scotland and Wales, implying that they are somehow a lesser part of the Union than England is. Monday’s Scotsman quotes David McLetchie MSP saying that Conservatives would have a mandate to govern even if they have scant representation at Westminster. The Tories’ difficulties will be all the greater if they find themselves depending on Ulster unionist votes (as is implied in Monday’s Daily Telegraph – see here).
The second issue is the question of just how committed to the Union the Tories are. Remember that only about half their prospective MPs do see themselves as Unionist, according to a Conservative Home poll reported here (and see also this more recent survey). Pursuing their immediate political advantage, by limiting the part Scottish and Welsh MPs can play at Westminster (and reducing their numbers) or questioning their right to play a full part, may well be popular on the back benches, and among the party’s grassroots. But it will also undermine support for the Union in other quarters (assuming they want to maximise that), and help those who say that Scotland and Wales have no place in a Tory-dominated Union, or that the Tories have no mandate to govern outside England. If the Tories want to govern both England and the UK as a whole, they have to undertake a tricky balancing act. Conservatives might well, and understandably, be frustrated if their policies are blocked by non-English vote. But venting that frustration may undermine their wider interests.
If the Tories do want to start addressing the extent to which their aspirations for England are undermined by Scottish and Welsh (if not Northern Ireland) MPs, they need to start a process of institutional reform relating to devolution that Labour ducked. The most urgent items on that programme are:
• Thinking about the electoral system. Lodge is quite right that a side benefit of a system of proportional representation is that it will strengthen Tory representation in Scotland and probably Wales. (That’s the case with pretty much any system of PR except the Alternative Vote which Labour favours, which isn’t proportional in any meaningful sense.) After all, the West Lothian question is really the coincidence of two anomalies – an anomaly of legislation (Scottish MPs voting on purely English matters but not similar ones for Scotland), and of representation (the political complexion of the Scottish MPs doing that voting being very different to that of the English MPs. PR tackles the second of those, which is the cause of the political difficulties that the West Lothian question creates.
• Starting to fix devolution finance on the administrative level. The argument that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs are entitled to vote on English policy matters because these affect the block grants for the devolved administrations is a strong one on the level of principle. If the amount of block grant is determined by something other than ad hoc funding decisions for England, it is much weaker.
• Ensuring policy functions are indeed disentangled on the practical level. This is tougher than it looks. While Westminster legislation continues to skate over its territorial implications, which are usually addressed quietly behind the scenes but aren’t a prominent part of the foreground of policy-making, this will remain an issue. Greater clarity about which level of government is responsible for what also makes it harder for devolved governments to blame the UK level for problems they encounter.
This doesn’t take us into the really tricky issues of devolution finance; ‘fair grants’, fiscal autonomy and so forth. As I’ve raised before, these are complicated and tricky. The Tory manifesto deliberately tries to play these issues long, and makes only the smallest and most limited number of commitments. But they can’t be ducked for long, not least because if the emergency budget due within 50 days imposes significant short-term budget cuts on the devolved administrations, the squeals of pain will be loud and serious.
None of these have been easy to deal with – which is why the Labour government has avoided tackling them since 1999. Doing so in tough economic times, with very tight restraints on public spending, is trickier. Doing it in the context of a hung parliament is trickier yet. But the Tories may scent what Labour didn’t; that constitutional rules are a way of writing a set of political preferences and advantages into the system, in a way that future governments can’t readily alter. Labour changed the game by introducing devolution, but only went half-way. Having failed to finish the job, they’ve handed the initiative to the Conservatives. And the still-unanswered question is what sort of a Union the Tories want.