Monday, 11 August 2008

Peter Robinson dabbles in UK politics

Before 1997 the greatest danger to the United Kingdom, as it is currently constituted, was posed by Irish nationalism. More than ten years later, after Labour’s ill-considered devolution experiments, the inconsistencies and asymmetries inflicted by Tony Blair and his government form a considerably profounder challenge to unionists. In concert with the insidious creep of electoral nationalism in Scotland and Wales, these structural problems offer a far more pressing threat than anything which is currently happening in Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Unionist party has signalled its determination to be actively involved in a pan-UK debate concerning the Union’s future, in order to address the most pertinent challenges which unionism now faces, by investigating a new arrangement with the Conservatives. The idea is to carve out a far more central role at the heart of the UK’s politics. As O’Neill highlighted last week, even the DUP’s leader, Peter Robinson, with his party’s politics still firmly attached to the parish pump, has alluded to structural conundrums which devolution has posed.

Robinson was speaking specifically on the subject of ‘English votes for English laws’ which Ken Clarke’s democracy taskforce has suggested should form the basis of Tory policy toward the so called West Lothian Question. The DUP leader suggests that such a solution would ‘weaken the Union’. O’Neill points out in his piece that the Union was weakened at the point when the Labour government created ‘inequities arising from the asymmetrical devolved system’.

Robinson allows at least that the question is ‘very complex’. His party have rarely been so understated where it perceives Westminster‘s ‘meddling’ in Northern Ireland’s affairs. Indeed the Democratic Unionists have shown little commitment to, or understanding of, the notion of the national parliament’s ultimate sovereignty as regards the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

Robinson’s predecessor as party leader was wont to describe direct rule ministers as ‘squatters’. The First Minister’s wife has made accusations against ‘the Brits’. Most recently the DUP have strongly opposed any attempt to legislate on abortion for Northern Ireland from Westminster. The matter should not be reserved they argue, even though it falls under the remit of policing and justice, an issue which they formerly claimed would not be devolved for ‘a political lifetime’. On a vitally important national debate regarding 42 day detention, the DUP used their votes to extract maximum political advantage from the national government, claiming it would do the ‘right thing’ for Northern Ireland.

Of course there is an argument against enacting English votes for English legislation, which has its basis in UK constitutional law. Westminster has not transferred any degree of sovereignty to the three legislative institutions in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. Westminster retains the constitutional right (Sewel Convention not withstanding) to override, veto or ignore legislation enacted by devolved administrations. In theory Westminster still enjoys ultimate competence for all legislation which is passed in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. To bar non English MPs from English votes would therefore create a hierarchy of power in Westminster in which MPs from English constituencies would enjoy greater privileges. In addition, members of the government elected in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would be unable to vote on English issues.

Of course, given the derision which the DUP heaps upon Westminster whenever it inconveniently reserves matters on which Robinson’s party does not see eye to eye with the government and given the virulent terms in which the DUP expounds its ‘ourselves alone’ politics, the party’s objection to English votes for English laws is unlikely to reside in an overwrought respect for the sovereignty of the national parliament.

The constitutional quandary which Labour has bestowed upon the United Kingdom requires sustained attention. Realistically, whether it is a good thing or not, devolution is here to stay. Scotland in particular has warmed to its parliament and to wrest it away would be counterproductive. It is also unlikely that in the foreseeable future it will be possible to remove competence in any significant fashion or restructure devolution to the institutions’ detriment.

The other purported ‘solution’ which cannot be countenanced is an English parliament. Such a body would irreparably unbalance the Union and deal a severe blow to any remaining vestige of unity within the Kingdom. Four separate national interest bodies would then exist and England would dwarf its three neighbours. The centrifugal forces exerted upon the Union would be unsustainable. I am reminded of the Soviet Union’s dying embers, which were doused, not so much by emerging regional separatism, but by a sense of grievance and a demand for institutional recognition fostered by Boris Yeltsin‘s courtship of Russian nationalism.

The challenge for the Conservatives and other parties prepared to address this thorny issue is to extinguish any sense of grievance which may be developing in England without diminishing Westminster’s sovereign authority or inflicting further damage on the psychological ties of Union. It is an awesome task which will require innovative, creative thinking. It is a task that is well beyond the parochial mindsets of the DUP.

17 comments:

seriously angry said...

So even though English MPs have no right to meddle in devolved matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we must put up with your MP's interfering in English domestic matters.

If that is the cost of the union, I am afraid it is too much. Yes we are the largest part of the islands, but a devolved domestic English government under a UK federal parliament with equal representation would not destroy the union.

Ignoring the problem and maintaining the farce that England is Britain will though; because eventually we will have had enough and we have been taught how to fight for our freedom from others, and the lesson has been well learned.

Terry Heath said...

If you want to split the UK just give three nations better democratic representation, generous welfare provisions and get the one that's left out the bill for it (and put up with a second class health/education service).

We are facing the biggest constitutional crisis the UK has ever seen. We urgently need to create a level playing field and the only way to do that is either a) reverse the devolution process to pre-1998 levels, or b) devolve power to the County Councils (or Regional Assemblies) or c) create a Parliament for England that matches the powers held by Hollyrood.

The first is untenable, the second is demonstrably unpopular (see North East referendum), so that leaves us with an English Parliament.

No one could argue against the fairness of this proposal and it wouls SAVE the Union.

There's nowt complicated about making us equal citizens (once more).

Chekov said...

“So even though English MPs have no right to meddle in devolved matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we must put up with your MP's interfering in English domestic matters.”

I don’t believe that I said that. On the contrary I acknowledged that there was a discrepancy which needed to be addressed.

“If that is the cost of the union, I am afraid it is too much. Yes we are the largest part of the islands, but a devolved domestic English government under a UK federal parliament with equal representation would not destroy the union.”

I don’t hear many mainstream politicians who accord with this opinion.

“Ignoring the problem and maintaining the farce that England is Britain will though; because eventually we will have had enough and we have been taught how to fight for our freedom from others, and the lesson has been well learned.”

England is Britain? What? When has anyone said that? England is part of Britain. That’s a geographical fact. I’ve yet to hear anyone claim otherwise. Nor have I heard anyone attempt to claim that England and Britain are the same thing. ‘Fight for our freedom’ – I wonder how widespread the notion that England has to ‘fight for its freedom’ is, outside a handful of vociferous internet warriors? Pathetic.

“If you want to split the UK just give three nations better democratic representation, generous welfare provisions and get the one that's left out the bill for it (and put up with a second class health/education service).”

Firstly I don’t want to split up the UK, this is a unionist blog. Secondly if you are presenting that as a picture of the UK it is skewed. There are asymmetries to be addressed certainly. I have acknowledged that. However the nature of a functioning society is that taxes are redistributed where they are most needed. It so happens that the south east of England is much the most prosperous region in our Kingdom. The tax yield is higher there and the tax spend lower, but many English regions also benefit from that fact.

“We are facing the biggest constitutional crisis the UK has ever seen. We urgently need to create a level playing field and the only way to do that is either a) reverse the devolution process to pre-1998 levels, or b) devolve power to the County Councils (or Regional Assemblies) or c) create a Parliament for England that matches the powers held by Hollyrood.”

Those are not the only means by which to address the problem. The Conservatives have suggested English votes for English laws and the problem is open to further investigation.

“There's nowt complicated about making us equal citizens (once more).”

We have a much used acronym in Northern Irish politics. MOPE.

Anonymous said...

You argue against EVOEM very well thus:
"To bar non English MPs from English votes would therefore create a hierarchy of power in Westminster in which MPs from English constituencies would enjoy greater privileges. In addition, members of the government elected in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would be unable to vote on English issues."
I agree on that. It would destabilise the British parliament to the point of finishing it off.

You then say curiously and illogically:
"The challenge for the Conservatives and other parties prepared to address this thorny issue is to extinguish any sense of grievance which may be developing in England without diminishing Westminster’s sovereign authority or inflicting further damage on the psychological ties of the Union"

ie just keep grimly and blindly plodding on with the present mess and hope the English don't get too cheesed off to the point of rebellion.

You are kidding yourself. There is only one equitable way to do adress the situation and that must be a representative national parliamentary body for England just like the other three.

Size is irrelevant here just as it is in every other federal state across the world made up of component nations. If England does not aquire an English parliament, government, ministry and devolved budget and we continue to be occupied by the direct ( and highly discriminatory)rule of the British state then the only alternative is complete English independence.

still seriously angry said...

"To bar non English MPs from English votes would therefore create a hierarchy of power in Westminster in which MPs from English constituencies would enjoy greater privileges. In addition, members of the government elected in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would be unable to vote on English issues."

Greater privileges than whom? Scotland; that has two layer of politicians one for Holyrood and one for Westminster? Since the English constinuent MPs are barred from voting on any domestic legislation on devolved issues; where is this greater privilege?
You claim that it is unjust not to allow Scottish, Welsh and NI MPs to vote on English legislation - I claim it is unjust to allow it.

And if you listen to the BBC, you will hear England and Britain being interchanged at will. Every newspaper does it, News Readers do it, and every Scottish National that rants at the British Parliament and calls it the English parliament does it too. For you not to acknowledge this fact is faintly ridiculous.

When will you understand that I am not the slightest interested in what main stream politicians believe. They are not interested in what is fair and just to the English. They merely want to hang onto their seats, with all the attendant privileges (there's that word again)

What is truly pathetic, is that a reasonably intelligent person like youself cannot understand the real sense of injustice that is gathering in England. The only acceptable solution to us is the democratic one of an English Parliament with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament.

It's not rocket science - it's plain common sense.

Chekov said...

“You argue against EVOEM very well thus: I agree on that. It would destabilise the British parliament to the point of finishing it off.”

It would certainly not have anywhere close to the detrimental effect on the Westminster parliament that and English parliament would visit upon it.

“You then say curiously and illogically:
"The challenge for the Conservatives and other parties prepared to address this thorny issue is to extinguish any sense of grievance which may be developing in England without diminishing Westminster’s sovereign authority or inflicting further damage on the psychological ties of the Union”
i.e. just keep grimly and blindly plodding on with the present mess and hope the English don't get too cheesed off to the point of rebellion.”

I restated the terms of the problem which have to be addressed and the constraints which protecting the Union places on solutions to that problem. That is a rather different thing from advocating
“grimly and blindly plodding on with the present mess”.
“You are kidding yourself. There is only one equitable way to do address the situation and that must be a representative national parliamentary body for England just like the other three.”

None of the major parties agree.

“Size is irrelevant here just as it is in every other federal state across the world made up of component nations. If England does not aquire an English parliament, government, ministry and devolved budget and we continue to be occupied by the direct (and highly discriminatory) rule of the British state then the only alternative is complete English independence.”

The ‘direct rule of the British state’ is administrated from London, for the most part by English politicians. Whilst there is a discrepancy to be addressed the poor oppressed English argument will not fly. To present England as ‘occupied’ is quite simply laughable. Luckily the vast majority of British people and indeed English people agree.

Chekov said...

“Greater privileges than whom? Scotland; that has two layer of politicians one for Holyrood and one for Westminster? Since the English constinuent MPs are barred from voting on any domestic legislation on devolved issues; where is this greater privilege?”

English MPs are not barred from voting on devolved issues. By the Sewel Convention they agree not to do so. Westminster retains full sovereignty and merely devolves legislative powers to Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.

“You claim that it is unjust not to allow Scottish, Welsh and NI MPs to vote on English legislation - I claim it is unjust to allow it.”

I actually didn’t claim that at all. I claimed that it is inadvisable to create to layers of voting MP at Westminster. In addition I have reservations about members of the government being unable to vote on issues affecting 86% of the population to which their executive bears responsibility.

“And if you listen to the BBC, you will hear England and Britain being interchanged at will. Every newspaper does it, News Readers do it, and every Scottish National that rants at the British Parliament and calls it the English parliament does it too. For you not to acknowledge this fact is faintly ridiculous.”

Nevertheless when people wish to refer to England they do not say Britain or vice versa. The difference between the two descriptions is universally understood.

“When will you understand that I am not the slightest interested in what main stream politicians believe.”

Ok. I take that on board. That is rather reassuring.

“They are not interested in what is fair and just to the English. They merely want to hang onto their seats, with all the attendant privileges (there's that word again)”

Yet they have to address the concerns of their constituents if they are to be elected. It seems that ranting English nationalists who wish to ‘fight for freedom’ are in a tiny minority.

“What is truly pathetic, is that a reasonably intelligent person like youself cannot understand the real sense of injustice that is gathering in England. The only acceptable solution to us is the democratic one of an English Parliament with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament.”

I understand that there is a problem to be addressed. That is actually the entire gist of my piece, or didn’t you read it? And who is us? Who are you entitled to speak on behalf of?

Chekov said...

"The ‘direct rule of the British state’ is administrated from London,"

Administered rather.

Anonymous said...

"None of the major parties agree."

and you are happy to spout the received thought of the British political class who, over the years, didn't agree with a whole lot of things that have come to pass. Try thinking for yourself and not second hand.

"grimly and blindly plodding on" is precisely what you are advocating when you say
" The challenge for the Conservatives and other parties prepared to address this thorny issue is to extinguish any sense of grievance which may be developing in England --" except recognise England.

Save us the platitudes. You are effectively opting to settle for the existing "inconsistencies and asymmetries inflicted by Tony Blair and his government " and you know it.

By the way, England IS effectively occupied by the British government and political class just as Tibet is by China. Not so violent but we do not have a parliament or poltical expression either.

Anonymous said...

The header picture is most evocative. Could we have some info on it?

Shades of how the English inceasingly feel holding up the British state!

Chekov said...

"Save us the platitudes. You are effectively opting to settle for the existing "inconsistencies and asymmetries inflicted by Tony Blair and his government " and you know it."

Anon - either present your arguments in a systematic and reasoned way or argue elsewhere. This type of shrill nonsense does not deserve a response.

dub said...

Chekov,

Your original post is one of the best explanations of the problems facing the uk state that i have ever seen. all the more puzzling then are your somewhat high handed responses to the legitimate questions raised by those whom you are dismissing as English nationalists.

Could you explain your fear that an English parliament would do irreperable damage to the uk? What would be wrong with the 4 constituent countries having defined powers and a federal government being responsible for defence, foreign relations etc?

You have eloquently and rightly made the point that ireland is more than the republic of ireland. You seem happy to ignore the problems of England being conflated with Britain however.

If northern unionists are going to re enter uk politics in order to have a greater influence on the future of the union, i think that you gravely underestimate the intelligence of the English people who will see northern irish unionists as propping up archaic 17th century structures of monarchical power and the indivisibility of the union for their own selfish ends, whilst insisting that they, but not the English, are entitled to devolution.

Chekov said...

“Your original post is one of the best explanations of the problems facing the uk state that i have ever seen. all the more puzzling then are your somewhat high handed responses to the legitimate questions raised by those whom you are dismissing as English nationalists.”

I’m sorry if my response seems high-handed, but I do not consider silly rhetoric about England being ‘occupied’ or comments about ‘fighting for freedom’ legitimate questions. That is the worst type of hyperbolic nationalist rhetoric. Neither is it a legitimate form of debate to ignore my actual argument and instead effectively proclaim ‘you say one thing, but this is what you mean’. Whilst those are the standard of posts to which I’m replying, I will treat them accordingly.

“Could you explain your fear that an English parliament would do irreperable damage to the uk? What would be wrong with the 4 constituent countries having defined powers and a federal government being responsible for defence, foreign relations etc?”

I explained my objections to an English parliament in my article. Briefly - I feel it would unbalance the UK, I feel it would further diminish the ties which still bind the kingdom, it would foster an atmosphere of competition between the 4 parliaments. One parliament would represent 85% of the population and the three others 15 %. It would be totally unworkable as a meaningful federation. I am certainly not against possible solutions such as an English Grand Committee, or something akin to the Sewel Convention as regards England only issues.

“You have eloquently and rightly made the point that ireland is more than the republic of ireland. You seem happy to ignore the problems of England being conflated with Britain however.”

I have done no such thing. On the contrary I have emphasised that England and Britain are not terms to be conflated and that this is widely understood.

“If northern unionists are going to re enter uk politics in order to have a greater influence on the future of the union, i think that you gravely underestimate the intelligence of the English people who will see northern irish unionists as propping up archaic 17th century structures of monarchical power and the indivisibility of the union for their own selfish ends, whilst insisting that they, but not the English, are entitled to devolution.”

The idea that unionists from Northern Ireland could on their own ‘prop up’ nation wide structures for their own ends, against the wishes of the majority of people in the UK, is quite frankly preposterous, however you choose to characterise those structures.

Dub said...

Chekov,

There was indeed bombast in some of the responses to your post but, imo, behind that bombast, there were legitimate points.

I still feel that you have not explained why you think it is right that northern ireland should enjoy quasi imdependence in a uk wherein the sovereign power of westminster is still theoretically absolute and essentially exploit that situation so that England cannot have the same rights that you have. To put it bluntly, are you not trying to have your cake and eat it?

Also, whilst you are absolutely right that, from your particular point of view, the status quo needs to be maintained and the English palmed off with a Grand Committee or some other ruse, this does not address the constantly evolving situation in Scotland. It seems that you are clinging to archaic UK structures which you admit no longer work, but which you are not willing to change for fear of letting the English genie out of the bottle, meantime letting Scotland fly off, and totally ignoring Dublin and northern nationlism. Holding on to a reluctant England whilst ignoring the reality all around you. Perhaps you should reconsider Norman Porter!

Chekov said...

“I still feel that you have not explained why you think it is right that northern ireland should enjoy quasi imdependence in a uk wherein the sovereign power of westminster is still theoretically absolute and essentially exploit that situation so that England cannot have the same rights that you have. To put it bluntly, are you not trying to have your cake and eat it?”

Northern Ireland does not enjoy ‘quasi independence’ within the UK. As I have patiently explained Westminster devolves power to the administration in Belfast. Personally I could take or leave that administration, but it is an intrinsic part of the deal which we came to for this part of the UK. I do not wish to exploit any situation. I support some measure to redress the balance and allow English MPs to address issues which solely pertain to England. I states as much in the piece.

“Also, whilst you are absolutely right that, from your particular point of view, the status quo needs to be maintained and the English palmed off with a Grand Committee or some other ruse, this does not address the constantly evolving situation in Scotland. It seems that you are clinging to archaic UK structures which you admit no longer work, but which you are not willing to change for fear of letting the English genie out of the bottle, meantime letting Scotland fly off, and totally ignoring Dublin and northern nationlism. Holding on to a reluctant England whilst ignoring the reality all around you. Perhaps you should reconsider Norman Porter!”

I don’t accept any of that analysis. A Grand Committee or a similar arrangement would not represent a ‘ruse’. Neither is Scotland ‘flying off’. Support for the Union remains within all four of its constituent members. The deficiencies as regards England need to be addressed and I’m confident they will be.

Dub said...

On the Barry McElduff thread you claimed that Northern Ireland was a "state". Semms you change its constitutional status in your mind to suit whatever argument you are putting forward.

Of course power is devolved from Westinster, but the point remains that whatever way you describe NI's current position, you seemn to think that it is right that it can enjoy that position and Scotland her position, but that England must not be allowed the same privilege, becuase that would mean... gulp... abandoning ulimate sovereignty of Westminster... which is the very thing which is pushing Scotland away in the first place, and which is the very thing which prevents, as you have very forensically detailed, the other rational solution, ie English votes for English issues. Modern federal states do NOT have absolute sovereignty vested in the parliament of one of its constituent states. Modern fereralism is the only thing which can save the UK, imho, but you are scared of it, just like many Unionists have always been scared of full integration into the UK party political system, and just like many Orangemen opposed the Act Of Union in 1801. You guys always oppose the one thing which could save your bacon becuase it would expose you to unwelcome questions. Hence Irish nationalism and now scottish nationalism. AS you rightly say, the latter is proving a lot more difficult for the UK state to cope with than recent Irish nationalism.

Chekov said...

I'll get to the rest later dud but briefly I did not say Northern Ireland was a state. I said there are two states in Ireland. 1-2 count them!