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The madness of Ken Clarke

Gareth Young
1 July 2008
Gareth Young (Lewes, CEP): Ken Clarke's plans to solve the West Lothian Question, have been greeted with predictable disdain by most political commentators. Typical was Iain Dale who declared that "England deserved better": From what I have seen I cannot in any way defend this so-called solution. It is not even a half way house. Either you believe that England should have devolved government or you don't. If you do, then you either believe in English votes on English measures or you believe in some form of English Parliament. But Iain Dale is wrong. Not that England deserves better, of course she does, but because neither Clarke's solution NOR English Votes on English measures are for people who believe that England should have "devolved government" (or "English government" if you prefer). Instead both are crude technical devices that attempt to right the democratic deficit brought about the very absence of English government. Clarke's contrivance is contrived to such a ludicrous degree precisely to avoid even the pretence of an English parliament that EVoEM seems to offer, and the consequent threat that such a democratic English body would pose to the Union when Scots object to it on the grounds of their own irrelevance. Indeed, as Clarke went to pains to point out on the Today Programme, his solution "means that the government retains control of the agenda; it retains control of the money." Scottish MPs would vote on the second reading of an English bill - "which is the vote on principle on the bill" - thereby ensuring the legitimacy of any cabinet government that contained Scottish ministers. But as Malcom Rifkind points out Clarke's mechanism would not have prevented the disgraceful actions of Scottish MPs during the Foundation Hospital and Top-up Fee legislation, even if last week's English Planning Bill amendment, scuppered by Brown's non-English MPs, could have been carried by English rebels. Under Clarke's scheme the English will be denied the affirmative expression of national identity afforded to the Scots; instead English MPs will speak for England only negatively - by wrecking UK Government legislation through the of tabeling ludicrous amendments, or the deleting of English clauses at committee stage. But fear not, for as Clarke points out the UK government retains control, and: "at the final stage all the UK members would vote so if the English have transformed it to a way that is unacceptable to the Government the government could ask its majority to veto and abort the measure." Or in other words if the English have transformed the bill to a manner that is acceptable to the English, the government could abort the legislation. Malcolm Rifkind does offer a slightly more sensible alternative to Clarke's madness: There could be a requirement that at Second Reading and at Report stage, for a vote to be carried on amendments to an England-only Bill, the vote, to be declared carried, would need a majority both of the House as a whole and of MPs representing English constituencies.

Though one has to ask Rifkind why, if the English can veto the UK Government, should we bother letting the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish vote at all; why not just let the English draft and vote on their own legislation instead of muddling up UK Government and non-English MPs in the process? The simple answer to that question is "The Barnett Formula", a funding mechanism that provides Scottish MPs with the constitutional right to vote on English legislation by dint of the fact that English domestic legislation determines the block grant due to Scots as an inflated percentage of what is available to the English. Naturally Ken Clarke does not even bother to address the Barnett Formula.

PS: Good article by Paul Kingsnorth on all this 

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