"States' Rights" hit the UK?
January 25, 2001 3:13 PM   Subscribe

"States' Rights" hit the UK? First abolishing tuition fees, now providing long-term care for the elderly: the Scottish Executive is making life, um, "interesting" for its progenitor in Westminster. The downside of an unwritten constitution?
posted by holgate (7 comments total)
The (ahem) election coverage has probably given Brits their first in-depth look at the separation of state government from federal. Our own version of devolved power, though, raises pretty twisty issues, not least the "West Lothian" question, which allows Scottish MPs in Westminster to vote on non-devolved English policy.

The vote on healthcare raises the possibility that MSPs and MPs, representing the same party and constituency in different parliaments, will vote along different whips. Anyone with experience of a federal system want to suggest a way to clean up this mess?
posted by holgate at 3:18 PM on January 25, 2001

I love you UK kids. Debating the extent of your healthcare, not trying to get it started. Very nice.

What is "non-devolved English policy," anyhow?

And unless I don't understand the problem (imminently possible) perhaps you could ban political parties.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 6:01 PM on January 25, 2001

Capt: "Powers", not "policy: it was late, forgive me ;)

Basically, Scotland now hasa Parliament and Executive to handle "devolved" internal powers, most notably healthcare and education. At the same time, Scotland sends MPs to the UK Parliament in Westminster. So a Scottish MP can vote on English education funding, but an English MP can't vote on Scottish education funding.

There are lots of anomalies: because university fees come from the home authority, not the one where the student is based, Scottish students in England won't have to pay their own tuition fees, while English students in Scotland will. More significantly, it's arguable that taxpayers in England and Wales will be supporting spending programmes in Scotland to which they don't have access themselves.

Politically, I think it's great, as the left-leaning Celtic fringe is basically forcing the emasculated English party to rethink some of the more despicable betrayals of their core constituency. Otherwise, you'd get care homes springing up on the banks of the Tweed, like Alabama's firework warehouses.
posted by holgate at 9:29 PM on January 25, 2001

I think it's about time attention was forced away from shop politics at Westminster. This should do nicely - maybe we might even see some progress in English constituencies...
posted by Caffa at 2:10 AM on January 26, 2001

holgate, it's simple: there needs to be an English parliament, in addition to the Scottish, Welsh, and uh, Ulster legislatures (and they should all be equivalent, something which isn't now the case). Someone shouldn't be elected to both their regional and national parliaments at the same time.

Plus, there should be a written constitution, whose approval is in the hands of the various regional legislatures. (Have I given any Tories heart-attacks yet?)

For Americans: Devolution is the British constitutional experiment now underway whereby certain powers are "devolved" to regional legislatures. Thus Scotland gets its own Parliament; but Wales gets only an Assembly, with non-equivalent powers; and Northern Ireland, technically not part of the devolution experiment, but an interesting parallel experiment of its own, will be run by local power-sharing structures that have yet to be wholly decided. So Scotland and Wales get some of the powers of a US state, but only on certain issues that the national Parliament has agreed to give them, and with all sorts of caveats, checks, and balances. This is happening at the same time as House of Lords Reform, which has involved baby-steps to reduce the tendency of its membership to be aging right-wing poohbahs with little interest in politics other than keeping the House of Commons from doing anything too radical. Eventually this might see it become an upper house more like the US Senate with participatory legislative responsibilities, but that's a long way off.

There are a few other side-projects, like giving London something closer to a municipal elected government of its own (like DC, it's been largely run by Parliament). The other major thing is the reduction in number and power of the so-called Quangoes (quasi-autonomous non-government organizations) which were set up in every sector of society during the postwar period. The closest analog to a Quango in the US is probably Amtrak, perhaps the recent USPS, and before them, Fannie Mae; but those operate as semi-independent businesses; quangoes actually affected people's daily lives in a lot of ways.

So, there's interesting stuff going on in Britain these days. [Locals are free to correct anything I got wrong.]
posted by dhartung at 7:30 AM on January 26, 2001

Great summary, dhartung. The one big argument against an English parliament is that England isn't as homogeneous a country as the other home nations by a long chalk. That's partly because of the far greater population -- forty-odd million -- but also because of the huge differences between London and the South-East, and the far corners of the North, East and West.

Economically: an "English" interest rates policy, with one eye on the problems of negative equity in London, does nothing for manufacturing industry in the north-east, and creates all the conditions for regional resentment.

Culturally: we're a big country in a small space. Regional differences manifest themselves within a space of miles. There's nowhere near the mobility which marks the lives of Americans: both my parents have spent their entire lives in my home town. That's why "English" identity is so famously hard to pin down. An English parliament in London, to the people of the north, still has the smell of an absentee landlord in a foreign capital. You run the risk of the Scottish border being extended to the English Midlands.

That kind of negotiation between urban and rural, developing and developed areas seems to happen in states such as Georgia, but I'm not sure whether the result -- the surburbanisation of NE Georgia as "metro Atlanta" -- is desirable.

I'd be happier with a cantonisation of England on a regional basis, especially within a stronger Europe. Or a switch to the stronger local government of the French d├ępartements. But that would most likely create another tier of government designed for the incompetents who currently infest local councils.

But interesting times, yes.
posted by holgate at 9:11 AM on January 26, 2001

One of the things I have always admired about the US system is the devolution of power down to a local level. The accountability of public officials is something which often gets overlooked in the UK, this system would overcome some of the regional disparities apperent here. It may also force political parties to actually listen to their voters instead of placating the majority which seems to be the norm at the moment. However, as holgate has implied, local government seems, at the moment to be full of people for whom the job is a meal-ticket rather than a responsibility.
posted by Markb at 2:33 PM on January 26, 2001

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