ALEX Salmond has lately taken to comparing himself with Charles Parnell, the Irish Home Rule leader, which has caused much irritation and some ridicule in Westminster.
The House of Commons has a long memory and Parnell, who led the Irish MPs in Westminster in the late 19th century, was a key figure in the succession of crises that afflicted the Liberal governments of WE Gladstone. Parnell’s tightly organised group of Irish MPs wrought havoc in a parliament which in those days was more like a gentlemen’s club.
But the most important thing about Parnell, oddly, is that unlike Salmond he wasn’t actually a nationalist. He sought self-government for Ireland within the British Empire – a kind of dominion status. This was the equivalent of what is now called devolution max or federalism, the British Empire no longer being in existence.
Home rulers intended that Ireland would become self-governing in its own national affairs, with defence, foreign affairs and currency left with the “imperial” parliament in Westminster. All three Irish home rule bills from 1886 to 1912 provided for the Irish parliament to pay what was called an “imperial contribution” to Westminster to meet the cost of the reserved services. Though there was much disagreement on how much.
The other fascinating fact about Parnell (apart from his affair with married woman “Kitty” O’Shea, which led to his downfall) was this: if the UK establishment had listened to him, Ireland might still be part of the United Kingdom today. There was nothing inevitable about Irish secession. It was the result of delay, political mismanagement and the advent of the First World War which killed the third Irish home rule bill passed by Westminster in 1912. That opened the way for the Easter Rising of 1916 by a small band of revolutionaries led by Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, who were unrepresentative of the Irish people as a whole.
What has all this got to do with Scotland? Well, the obvious lesson is that continued frustration of home rule demands can lead some people to abandon the democratic process. I’m not for one second saying that Scotland is going to lapse into civil war, or that the independence campaign is going to resort to violence. Alex Salmond has also taken to quoting Irish poet WB Yeats’s lines on the 1916 Uprising – “changed, changed utterly” – to describe Scotland after the referendum, but he isn’t a revolutionary. Scotland is a very different country and has always had a closer identification with the Union.
Nevertheless, there is no guarantee Scotland will remain in the UK. There has been frustration at the result of the Smith Commission, which delivered a kind of devo minus rather than devo max. And the way in which the politics of English Votes for English Laws has taken over the Westminster agenda is a disturbing echo of what happened under Irish home rule. Gladstone wrestled for years with the various solutions to what is now called the West Lothian Question: what role should Irish MPs play in parliament after home rule?
One solution, which seems to have resurfaced last week in the Government’s statement on English Votes for English Laws, was called the “in and out” method. This was not a form of birth control, but a proposal for legislative interruptus by Irish MPs on non-Irish affairs. The idea was that the Speaker would “certify” certain bills as exclusively “English” and Irish MPs would withdraw from voting on them. Seems simple enough. But Gladstone rejected withdrawal of Irish MPs because it created too many anomalies. The problem, as always, was money. It is all very well having MPs withdraw from votes on devolved issues, but it is actually very hard to find UK bills which do not affect devolved legislatures financially. If English MPs were to vote to privatise the NHS in England, for example, that would have financial implications for Holyrood because the amount of money earmarked for health spending in the Barnett Formula calculations would be vastly reduced.
Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP who coined the West Lothian Question, rather underlined this point by voting, despite being a Scottish MP, on the bill to increase university tuition fees in England in 2004. Some might argue that the devolution of income tax bands to Scotland means that it is no longer necessary for Scottish MPs to vote on money bills because they can raise their own. But that isn’t the case. So long as the Barnett funding model continues, decisions on expenditure in England will affect Scotland.
In the end, Gladstone and the Liberals proposed reducing the number of Irish MPs instead. But, unable to learn from history, the Conservatives seem intent on persevering with English Votes for English Laws today. The leader of the house, William Hague, offered four options last week including a Grand Committee of English MPs to debate bills on English affairs. There used to be a Scottish Grand Committee which did something similar before Scottish devolution, but had no legislative power and was purely advisory. What Hague’s plans propose is for English MPs to have a veto on bills that they don’t like. This may all seem rather reasonable – surely it is right for English MPs to have at least some say on health or education in England? But the anomalies are just the same.
Say Ed Miliband is elected prime minister, with the help of MPs from Scotland and Wales, and decides to abolish private health provision in the NHS. A Conservative-dominated English Grand Committee would be able to veto his plans. It might veto attempts to abolish the charitable status of private schools, or replace tuition fees with a graduate tax, or increase childcare provision, or scrap council tax.
Very soon a UK Government that did not have a majority in England would effectively become a lame duck – in office, but not in power. The UK Cabinet system could become untenable. Effectively, there would be ministers sitting in the government who could not determine policy in their own departments. This deadlock could itself become an issue for the devolved parliaments because the governance of the UK as a whole could be affected by a weak government.
Alex Salmond hopes to ride to the rescue offering a historic deal to save a Labour government by a coalition with the SNP, assuming they return around 20 MPs as polls indicate. But the problem here is that the SNP has observed its own form of English Votes for English Laws for years, and does not vote on issues like hospital trusts that it believes are purely of English interest. Salmond is now hinting that perhaps they could start voting on English bills after all.
Well, he is certainly following in his mentor Parnell’s footsteps here. The Irish leader was notoriously vague and contradictory in his approach to dealing with the UK. The principle seemed to be: whatever was best for Ireland. Mind you, as The Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges put it last week, England might not put up with Scotland’s behaviour for long. History may be about to repeat itself.