Friday, 19 September 2014

After the referendum “no” vote, what next? Part Two - Mr Danny Alexander's difficult position, and the prospects for executive accountability when Scottish MPs and ministers cannot vote on English matters - Prof Perri 6 - Chair in Public Management, Queen Mary

Now that the Scottish voters have rejected independence by a modest majority, debates begin in earnest and with urgency about what can happen next. This second post in the series examines the implications for the public services of Prime Minister Cameron's pledge to restrict the rights of Scottish MPs at Westminster to vote on issues designated as principally English or English and Welsh in application.

Mr Cameron announced that he will take Alexander the Great's sword to the Gordian knot of the “West Lothian question”. Because the issue has been debated since the first proposals for devolution for Scotland in the 1970s, commentators immediately recognised the implications for any future Labour government. More on this in a moment.

What has not been appreciated is the immediate consequence for Mr Cameron's own administration.

In my post of 17th September, I pointed out the difficulty that Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander would have had on Friday 19th September if the Scottish people had voted “yes”. Mr Cameron's announcement has in fact put his Chief Secretary in the same dilemma that I identified as the outcome of a “yes” vote.

Here are Mr Cameron's exact words: “Just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland. I hope that is going to take place on a cross-party basis. I have asked William Hague to draw up these plans. We will set up a Cabinet Committee right away and proposals will also be ready to the same timetable. I hope the Labour Party and other parties will contribute.”

Not exactly precise. And that is fair enough when announcing a negotiation process. But we have to presume that what is meant is not a separate English parliament but MPs in Westminster sitting for constituencies in Scotland and Wales being debarred from voting on, and perhaps even from speaking in debates on legislation which is designated when it is first introduced as applying only to England.

But what applies in the chamber and the committee corridors of the House of Commons also has to apply to cabinet ministers. So we have a situation in which, morally and even before legislation, Mr Alexander as Chief Secretary and presumably Mr Carmichael as Secretary of State for Scotland cannot really be seen to vote for government bills which affect England. In the case of the Scottish secretary, that matters little. But a Treasury Chief Secretary who cannot vote for his own budget is in an impossible position. Indeed, it is a moot point whether he can vote on English matters, including Treasury ones, in Cabinet itself. If he cannot uphold collective cabinet responsibility, then he cannot function. It is a bitterly ironic result that a Scottish vote for remaining in the union, for which Mr Alexander himself campaigned fervently, might – as as result of the prime minister's announcement - leave Mr Alexander in an impossible position in the coalition government in which he has played a critical role as a member of the “quad” making so many key decisions.

Because the Mr Alexander and Mr Carmichael are the only ministers at the moment who represent Scottish constituencies, the coalition government's problems are embarrassing but perhaps less serious than those faced by any incoming Labour government which had significant numbers of Labour MPs behind it from Scottish and Welsh constituencies.

If ministers from Scottish constituencies cannot vote on their bills when they affect only England, then it is hard to see how ever again there can be a Secretary of State in Westminster for health, education, or any other devolved function who represents a Scottish constituency. In a Labour government, that represents a major blockage to the career aspirations of Scottish Labour MPs. It will be harder to attract people to become candidates for Westminster seats if they can only hope to become Secretary of State for functions which are not devolved such as Defence. Perhaps the Home Office could be split so that immigration, an area of policy reserved for Westminster because it applies to the whole UK, could become a cabinet level post separate from the policing and other Home Office functions which are devolved. But that will be little consolation. This will hit Labour hard, and could erode its base even in Scotland, let alone in England.

Indeed, it may be that one bitterly ironic consequence of Mr Cameron's response to the outcome of the Scottish referendum rejecting independence and voting for the union will be that there can never again be a prime minister of that union who represents a Scottish constituency because so many of the bills which the PM must speak for and vote for will affect England.

What will a rule that only English MPs may vote on English matters mean for select committees which hold the executive to account? This matters greatly for civil servants, because today it is not only permanent secretaries and agency chiefs but others in several ranks who are called before these committees. Can Scottish MPs sit on select committees at Westminster for health, education, and other functions which are devolved in Scotland? Can they vote to agree the committee's reports? And if so, must there be separate select committees for England for all those executive functions which are devolved?

For a Labour government dependent on Scottish and Welsh MPs and facing a Conservative opposition with a large body of seats in England, the implication of Mr Cameron's announcement is that a Labour  government might be unable to get its manifesto programme of legislation through as its affects health and education and policing and regional economic development in England. If it were clear from the parliamentary arithmetic immediately after a general election that this could be the case, then it is hard to see what authority such a government would have. Its effective power would be limited to reserved functions. While it would enjoy the confidence of the House because of its Scottish and Welsh support, it would effectively have to enter into some kind of informal pact with the opposition to govern England. The distinction between executive and opposition in England would then be as blurred as it was in the mid-eighteenth century.

If the rule extends to select committees, then the prospect that a Labour government without a majority in England would face regular censure from Conservative dominated select committees for a series of functions will be a daunting and an undermining one, as the power of select committees grows steadily.

For Labour, unless it can learn how to win in England as Blair did in 1997, the only way out of the dilemma will be some grand reconfiguration of the non-Conservative parties in England. But few in the Labour party have ever relished that idea, and after watching Liberal Democrats in coalition since 2010, the idea may have even less appeal to many Labour politicians.

For civil servants and for agency managers of public services in England, this will present complicated dilemmas. In Westminster administrations which lack a majority in England, the necessity of at least informal pacts mean much more complicated accountability. The old “Westminster model” of executive accountability exclusively through a minister to a House in which the executive has a majority was always more guiding myth than empirical, historical fact. But under a Labour administration in this position, little would be left of it even as a guiding myth.

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