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Brown answers the English question

Gordon Brown may be running up the Union Jack, but English Tories aren’t saluting it. The tousle-haired Tory minister, Boris Johnson, their latest reluctant candidate for London Mayor, last week fulminated against the “corruption” of a Scottish Prime Minister inflicting policies on England which do not apply in Scotland. David Cameron called for “English votes for English laws”. A raft of media commentators have also been complaining about subsidies to Scotland, and Lord Barnett is looking to set up a Lords committee to scrap his own formula.

So, what’s new? you say. They’ve been grumbling about the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian Question since 1978, when both phrases came into existence. But there are three reasons why this is crunch time on both dimensions of the Scottish Question. We have a Nationalists First Minister in Holyrood, a Scottish Prime Minister in Westminster, and a full scale review of the UK constitution.

The Tories will rightly insist that this review addresses the anomalies inherent in the 10 year old devolution settlement. Alex Salmond will egg them on, insisting that it is time Scots “stopped ruling England”. Gordon Brown has anyway told BBC on June 28th that he would “listen” to the grievances of “the 80%” who don’t have a devolved parliament.

WLQ should be the easiest thing to tackle. Last week Brown, as expected ruled out “English votes for English laws”, on the not unreasonable grounds that it would create two classes of MP and likely break up Britain by creating a defacto English Parliament in Westminster. Instead, he has offered a series of committees of the regions in which MPs from the eight English regions can put issues of concern (such as the way that the UK media seemed totally uninterested in the Hull flooding which, had it happened in London, would have been treated like another New Orleans).

Now, there are already informal regional groups of MPs so it’snot clear quite what this would achieve. The old Scottish Grand Committee was an insult to Scots and English regional versions would also be regarded as tokenism. Anyway, here is a much better answer. If you further reduced the number of Scottish MPs going to Westminster, you would diminish their impact on English legislation.

Scots should still be represented in Westminster of course, because so many of its decisions, on finance especially, apply equally to Scotland. But there is no need to have so many of them – 59 – in a chamber where, historically, government majorities have often been lower than that figure. Given that so many issues have been devolved it seems reasonable to reduce the number to half that.

There’s not, after all, very much for Scottish MPs to do at Westminster. The number has already been cut from 72 as a consequence of devolution, so the precedent is well established. I can’t see anyone seriously objecting that 25 or 30 Scottish MPs were “ruling England” in a chamber of 650. They would be a Scottish voice, nothing more.

Barnett is trickier. There have been real grievances expressed at Scots (and Europeans) not paying tuition fees while English students are buckling under the burden. There is an obvious problem if English pensioners are losing their home to pay for care costs when Scottish pensioners are not (and may soon not be paying council tax) ; and if English patients are dying because of being denied drugs that are keeping Scots alive.

Yes,I know – this is what devolution means, and it all has to be paid for in the Scottish budget. But when that budget is underspent by a cumulative #1.5billion (as revealed byJohnn Swinney last month) then questions are bound to be asked.

The English complaint will continue so long as Scotland appears to get #1500 more per head in public spending than England. I say ‘appears’ because this is all based on the highly dubious GERS estimates for Scottish public spending.

GERS assigns amounts of common spending to Scotland the bulk of which are actually spent in the South East of England. I am thinking of ‘non identifiable’ public spending on things like defence industries and the civil service which go disproportionately to the south . Also spending on infrastructure projects like the Millennium Dome (1bn), the Jubilee line (3,5bn) and the Olympic Games (9bn plus).

Moreover, since Scotland has one third of the land mass of the UK, but only a tenth of the population, it costs more to administer services like roads and schools in Scotland than it does in densely populated areas in the south. Then of course there is the one billion a month that goes south in the form of revenues from Scotland’s oil…

Now, the people who want to scrap Barnett say there should be a needs assessment to find out just how much people should be getting per head for public services. This sounds straightforward but it is not. And no one really wants to see a squalid row over how much it should cost for every cancer case or every school place in Scotland. Even the SNP find this kind of thing distasteful, and they are politically in favour of replacing Barnett with full fiscal autonomy.

So, what will Brown do? Well, I wouldn’t bet against him setting up something like a Royal Commission into the funding arrangements of devolution. The Kilbrandon Commission of 1973 still stands as a formidable analysis of the Scottish Question.

It looked at things like oil reveues and taxation, and it would be reasonable to look again now that new parliament has bedded down and is about to be joined by a Welsh Parliament as the Cardiff assembly gains primary legislative powers under the new Lab Plaid leadership. ( another blow to the stand-alone LibDems)

A serious examination of what tax powers the Scottish Parliament could use have is anyway long overdue. There is much talk of fiscal autonomy but no one actually says what the taxes should be. A share of VAT? Drink taxes? Variable income tax? And what implications might the coming of local taxes have? Brown has already indicated that he is wanting people in the localities to have more of a role in spending decisions. He could shoot the Nationalist fox by getting his fiscal retaliation in first.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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