Daniel Hannan is an MEP and one of the founders of Direct Democracy.
I have found it: the philosopher’s stone of politics, the elixir of life. There really is an answer to the West Lothian Question. Twenty nine years have passed since Tam Dalyell, the stony Old Etonian who then sat for West Lothian, set the conundrum before Parliament. Scottish devolution, he observed, would lead to a constitutional anomaly, as Westminster MPs with Scottish seats would be able to vote on matters affecting English constituencies, but would have no say over such matters in their own constituencies.
Today, the problem is no longer academic. On two occasions — over foundation hospitals and again over tuition fees — the votes of Scottish MPs secured the passage of contentious legislation that did not apply north of the border. And the signs are that the English are becoming miffed. An opinion poll in The Daily Telegraph showed that nearly half of English voters object to the idea of a Scottish Prime Minister — a finding that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
What, then, is the answer? The only two solutions so far hazarded – a separate English parliament or a wholly independent Scotland – have understandably failed to win widespread support. But there is a third option: localism.
There is no power exercised by the Holyrood legislature under the 1998 Scotland Act that could not, in England, be devolved to a lower level — either to counties and cities or, better still, to individual citizens.
English councils could, for example reassume responsibility for the
relief of poverty, which was considered a municipal function from the
Middle Ages until the late 20th century. They could take up the powers
of the now defunct Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. They could
administer health and education (or at least the financing of these
policies: there is no reason why they should directly run schools and
All Westminster MPs would then find themselves on an equal footing.
True, they would have lost some of their powers. But they would be able
to compensate by taking back different powers from judges, quangoes and
Eurocrats. The House of Commons would, in its functions at least,
resemble the US Congress, concentrating on big, national issues such as
defence, immigration and foreign treaties. I suspect that most MPs
would regard this as an improvement on their current status as
providers of a queue-jumping service for pushy people.
Could our local authorities cope with the increased responsibilities?
Kent has three times the population of Wyoming; yet Wyoming
happily runs its own criminal justice, social security and taxation
systems. Give councils more power and you will attract a higher calibre
of candidate as well as boosting participation at local elections. In
Britain, local authorities raise 25 per cent of their budgets and
turnout is typically around 30 per cent. In France, those figures are,
respectively, 50 and 55 per cent; in Switzerland 85 and 90 per cent.
English devolution is not simply a way to correct the lopsided
devolution settlement; it is a meritorious reform in itself. Canvassers
from all three parties will privately tell you that they are coming
across an unprecedented degree of doorstep cynicism. "Voting doesn’t
make any difference," say the punters — and they’re right. The
questions that impact most tangibly on local communities — whether to
build more houses, where to deploy the police, who goes to which school
— have been removed from the democratic process.
Decisions that would be made at a town meeting in the US are made, in
England, by a single minister and then imposed uniformly on the whole
country. As well as being unaccountable, the system is inefficient. "To
the size of a state there is a limit, as there is to animals, plants
and implements," wrote Aristotle, "for none of these can retain its
facility if it is too large". The NHS payroll is the size of the
population of an average African nation, and its budget considerably
higher. No single minister, be he the wisest in Whitehall, can get the
most out of such a monstrous organisation.
In Europe, as in North America, conservatives generally stand as the
defenders of local particularisms against the bureaucrats in the
national capital. There are signs that, after decades of misguided
centralism, the Tories might do the same here. David Cameron has
promised to place the police under locally elected representatives, to
democratise the Crown Prerogative powers and to wind up the regional
quangoes and pass their powers downwards. If he follows through, he may
find that he has solved the West Lothian Question almost without
It would, of course, be open to the Scottish and Welsh electorates to
embark on a parallel localist agenda, devolving power to Aberdeenshire,
Flintshire and the rest. Either way, the asymmetry of the current
dispensation would have been corrected. The English would no longer
have anything to complain about. We could all go back to resenting
Gordon Brown, not because he sits for a Fifeshire seat, but because he
is a miserable girner who has plundered our pensions and given away our
Righting the current constitutional imbalance will be like tapping a
pebble out of our shoe. With the irritant removed, we can go back to
celebrating the things that we have achieved together: ending the slave
trade, bringing law and civilisation to new continents, fighting for
the freedom of all Europe’s nations.
There will still be occasional squabbles, of course. The relationship
between England and Scotland, like that between Johnson and Boswell,
has always involved a certain amount of teasing along with the
underlying affection. It is a relationship typefied by the Highlander
who, observing the rout at Dunkirk, commented tersely: "If the English
give in too, this could be a long war".
But, in the last analysis, there is more that unites us than that
divides us. For all our quarrels, we share a way of looking at the
world. The underlying argument for the Union has not changed in 400
years. It was ably and eloquently advanced by that aboriginal Unionist,
James VI and I: "Hath not God first united these kingdoms, both in
language and religion and similitude of manners? Hath He not made us
all in one island, compassed by one sea?" Amen.
Related link: Ten point briefing on localism.