Thursday, October 02, 2014

What is the Westminster Parliament?

I'm sure some of you have rather blunt answers.

But the question of just what Westminster is lies at the heart of much of the debate about devolution and non-devolution. And the answer affects proposals for tackling the problems caused by devolution.

This applies as much to the House of Lords as much as the House of Commons. The Lords rarely gets a look-in when it comes to the West Lothian Question but if anything it presents even more challenges than the Commons. (And simply waiting for Lords reform is an unrealistic solution; besides some of the proposed alternatives present the same problems.)

Fundamentally the question boils down to whether the Westminster Parliament and Government are there to serve:
  • The United Kingdom as a whole albeit with various different packages of law making and services sub-contracted out for certain parts of the country?
  • The United Kingdom as a "federal" entity plus England as a "state" entity all mixed in together with various other bits that are devolved to some but not all nations?
The answer is probably, in that typical British fashion, somewhere between the two without much thought as to precisely which. But we now have a greater focus upon the anomalies. And without consensus on what we have at the moment it's hard to obtain consensus on whether change is needed and if so what to.

At present Westminster largely operates as a UK entity. It is much harder to surgically extract "English-only matters" than many cries suggest. Taxation is a UK-wide matter. Most government departments combine UK and English elements - for instance the Department of Health runs the English NHS but also does UK-wide work such as negotiations on international reciprocal use agreements. And the Barnett Formula that determines the funding for the devolved nations is based on spending in England. It would take a major overhaul of how Westminster is structured before one could start restricting the voting rights of some MPs.

There's also the basis that MPs are supposed to serve the whole country, not just their own constituency. This makes every single one of the 650 MPs "our MP", not just the one elected in the local constituency. This is even starker in the House of Lords where peers do not have constituencies and it's impossible to filter out any except perhaps the Bishops.

(And although you could assign the Bishops as "English" it would get messier to divide them up by regions. Only five sees have permanent places in the Lords and the other twenty-one are the most senior representing the Church of England as a whole rather than their individual dioceses. Plus many dioceses cross regional and local government boundaries.)

I'll just add that this part of the problem doesn't necessarily go away with Lords reform. A number of proposals for both appointed and elected upper houses include UK-wide members, whether appointed by Westminster or elected by some of the PR systems.

Now one could undertake a major restructuring within Westminster. But whilst that would make it easier to determine what is and isn't an "English-only matter" it would not address the basic problem of having different majorities on different matters. Could Westminster actually function if conflicting majorities within a single chamber start voting in direct contradiction? Could a minister with a joint English and UK ministry find themselves appointed by one majority and then immediately no confidenced by the other? If a separate English executive was elected by the English-only MPs (let's just leave for now the question of matters devolved to Scotland but not Wales) then you could get the First Minister of England serving also as the Leader of the Opposition of the United Kingdom. Conflict could reign supreme and non-English MPs could get shut out of contention for leadership roles.

What sounds like a simple elegant solution brings a whole minefield of problems with no easy resolution. A more lasting solution must leave each body with a single function, even if some asymmetrical arrangements have to be put in place.

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