DCSIMG

Where in the world is there an answer? Well, nowhere

HERE'S tae us - wha's like us? Gey few. None of them have the West Lothian Question. And none, it seems, the West Lothian Answer.

That is the clear, if couthy, message from a study of other countries looking for an answer to the constitutional paradox named after Tam Dalyell's old constituency.

It has often been asserted that there must be examples of other states in the world that have multi-layered democratic structures which create the same anomalies as the WLQ; and, therefore, that they could provide the answer.

So, is there a Lower Saint Lawrence question in Quebec or a Tarragona question in Catalonia? Alas, no - or rather not really. The closest parallel to the current Scottish settlement is in Spain, which originally had a system of devolution where certain regions had greater powers than others.

The Basque country, Catalonia and Andalusia led the way as Spain emerged from the rule of General Franco and fashioned democracy out of dictatorship.

In the language of the constitutional theorist, the system was one of asymmetrical devolution and it caused considerable tension within Spain.

The Catalan and Basque parliaments, for example, had more powers over local matters, from taxation to education.

Csar Colino, a lecturer in political science at the Spanish Distance-learning University in Madrid, says that, as the constitution evolved, this has changed.

All 17 autonomous communities, as they are known, can, if they wish, take on maximum devolved powers, within the limits set by the Spanish constitution.

Mr Colino said: "The system was built and operates now on the basis of voluntary choices, where the regions can ask to take on more powers. Within the limits, they could take whichever they want, la carte."

It is, therefore, unknown for MPs in the Spanish parliament who come from regions with fewer powers to complain, say, about the Catalans taking decision for them, perhaps in an area such as prisons policy, which some have opted not to take on.

For the Catalans can reply by saying these regions cannot complain because, if they wish to, they can have the same level of devolution.

After the current reforms, there is no longer much left to add to their powers, without trespassing into areas such as defence and the central economic functions held in Madrid.

This does not, however, mean that issues similar to the West Lothian Question are unknown in Spain. Indeed, it was cited in a recent debate.

When the Catalan parliament - the equivalent of Holyrood - was pressing for virtually complete autonomy from Madrid on all domestic issues, the WLQ was mentioned in Spain.

The problem was the Catalans also wanted rights to appoint members for central Spanish bodies, such as the constitutional court and central bank.

Mr Colino said: "The issue of the West Lothian Question was raised in this context. It would have meant Catalan MPs and the Catalan executive would have decided issues for the whole of Spain, but other MPs would have no influence over Catalonia."

Any move towards "ultra-devolution" was rejected by Spain's parliament when it adopted its regional statutes, setting out what devolved governments could do. However, the Catalans did make some progress in that the new statute has recognised their right, and that of all other regional governments who wish to do so, to have a say in national decision-making bodies.

Mr Colino said: "If you ask normal people about the West Lothian Question, they would not really recognise that, because the asymmetries that remain are generally accepted and they are self-designed."

So, if not Spain, perhaps a country such as Canada, with French-speaking, nationalist- inclined Quebec as part of it, has a similar dilemma?

Again, no. As with Madrid and Barcelona, there are frequent battles over money between Ottawa and Quebec. However, Canada - like Germany, Australia or other countries to which we might look for parallels - is a federal state.

This means it has a constitution setting out what each level of government does, thereby preventing the Lower Saint Lawrence - it is a part of Quebec province - Question ever being raised.

It seems, therefore, that there is not an off the shelf solution we can borrow from overseas.

Charlie Jeffery, professor of politics at Edinburgh University, says: "There is a spectrum of possible models from other countries which is worth looking at, but in the end the UK has got to find a bespoke solution, and the most important part of that is finding a solution for England.

"England, because of its size and power, is much more of a problem than the West Lothian Question."

Time to tackle the unfinished business of devolution

THERE is a great deal of unfinished business.

The devolution settlement has, not surprisingly, created anomalies, issues and tensions which are testing the strength of Anglo-Scottish relations.

The Union is, however, a very complex entity and does not lend itself to the narrow political and superficial debate that currently surrounds it.

The UK comprises many different types of Union: constitutional and political, monarchical, economic, cultural and social.

It has within it different nations and regions with views and attitudes towards the Union that vary widely.

The UK is one of a number of unions which directly affect our lives, including the European Union and the multi-faceted global union - not one but many unions.

The Union has to be seen as looser, more flexible, more diverse and modern and in turn allow the issues at the heart of devolved government - sovereignty, identity, democracy and nationality - to be better understood and made more relevant to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England.

The immediate post-devolution period was not as traumatic as it might have been.

This steady state politics, however, is now over, with potentially dramatic consequences.

Change is also evident in England, where criticism is growing and attitudes are less benign towards devolution; but it remains to be seen whether this results in positive political and constitutional change for England and Westminster or a hardening of Unionism and anti-Scottish sentiment.

The main threat to the Union will not be the advance of Nationalism but failures and misjudgments at the heart of Unionism. What, then, are the threats?

• Failure to address the post-devolution anomalies such as the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian Question.

• The Conservative Party at Westminster struggling to renew itself and pursuing political opportunism on devolved matters.

• The failure to see the "England Question" as part of a quasi-federal future for the Union.

• The failure of other parties at Westminster to defend the constitutional settlement while allowing ill-informed and partisan criticism to go unchecked.

• The inability to see a Union without Britishness and a growth of national identities at the expense of Britishness. In 2003 polls showed how people regard their nationality - Scottish, not British, 72 per cent; Welsh, not British, 60 per cent; English, not British, 38 per cent and growing.

• The failure to appreciate the end of Labour hegemony and the reality of new political configurations throughout the UK.

There is a refusal to accept that old Unionism is dead and must now renew. This process has its own momentum.

Engagement with negative aspects of devolution should give way to a positive embrace of ideas and policies designed to improve the government of England and help ease the United Kingdom into the 21st century.

In 2007 the maintenance of Scotland within the Union can only be achieved if politicians across the Unionist spectrum are prepared to be open minded, face up to uncomfortable truths, shed outdated prejudices, realise the need for new political ideas and accept pragmatic solutions.

The spotlight must shift to the Union.

HENRY MCLEISH

Call to scrap Barnett Formula

CONTROVERSY over the way public funds are distributed across the UK erupted yesterday during a heated political debate.

Graeme Stringer, the Labour MP for Manchester Blackley, called for the Barnett Formula to be scrapped and replaced with a needs-based system, during a Commons debate he initiated.

Mr Stringer accused his own party of "unintentional dishonesty" in the way it highlighted the Barnett Formula when campaigning in Scotland.

It had been publicised north of the Border, but kept out of Labour's manifesto in 2005 because it was more advantageous to Scots than in the rest of the UK, he said. Although the Plaid Cymru-Labour coalition partners in the Welsh Assembly have agreed to conduct a review of the formula, it is not thought the Treasury will replace the system.

Ahead of the debate, Stewart Hosie, the SNP's Treasury spokesman, warned the government not to cut Scotland's share of funding. "This debate is not about Scottish funding, it's really about English frustration at Gordon Brown," he said.

"English MPs are understandably irritated that Mr Brown is not implementing the same popular SNP policies in England that his own constituents are benefiting from under Alex Salmond's government in Scotland."

Mr Brown also inadvertently waded into the controversy yesterday during Prime Minister's Questions, when he appeared to misunderstand how the population-based formula works. He told the Commons the "Barnett Formula is based on the needs of each different part [of the UK]."

When quizzed later, his spokesman replied that the Prime Minister was not expecting "his comments to be subjected to a literal interpretation".

GERRI PEEV

 
 
 

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