Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Devolution

The most widely discussed dilemma posed by devolution is the West Lothian question, named as such by Enoch Powell after the then constituency of Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP who argued against the 1970s devolution proposals.   This is about the anomaly created if a wide range of social and home affairs issues are devolved to a Scottish Parliament, but remain with the Westminster Parliament in England.   Consequently, Scottish MPs could vote in the Commons on such issues affecting England but not when it affects their own constituents north of the border.
The Government has tried to overcome this problem by having English Votes for English Laws.   What they have created is a bureaucratic nightmare with little if any accountability.   In order to overcome the West Lothian question England should have its own Parliament.   The total number of parliamentarians in England, Wales, Scotland Northern Ireland and Westminster (United Kingdom) should not exceed 600 including the devolved Parliaments.
            A Federal structure for the United Kingdom should be created with each country within the Kingdom having its own Parliament.
The Government White Paper on Scotland’s Parliament, published by the Scottish Office in July 1997, stated explicitly that “The UK Parliament is and will remain sovereign”.   The Scotland Act 1998 repeated the phrase.
The Scottish Parliament has legislative competence over matters that once were the responsibility of the Scottish Office, such as health, education, local government and law and order.   It also has tax-varying powers.   It can add up to 3p on the basic rate of income tax.
Having established a Federal structure each national parliament can then decide which powers are devolved and to what level.
There is a never-ending conflict between central government and local government.   Both claim to have a democratic mandate and both claim to know what is best for the people.   Local government wants to provide the relevant services for their locality and to prioritise them.   Central government wants to retain financial control and to ensure that national standards are met so how can this conflict be resolved?   Let the people decide!
The parliaments of each nation would set out enabling legislation showing what powers could be devolved to a local level.   A local constitutional convention could then be held to consider the constitution of the proposed authority and the particular powers to be transferred to it.   The convention would produce a proposal which would be subject to a referendum in all the local authority areas covered by the proposal.   The result of the referendum would be final.
Local government should be self-financing, itself raising the money that it spends.   In such a scenario there is a strong case for as much power as possible to be transferred from central government to local government and in order most closely to meet the wishes of the people that power should be devolved to the lowest level of local government as possible.   Democratic accountability would then ensure that those responsible for raising the moneys locally were also accountable for the way those monies were spent  By these measures the aims and objectives of both local and national government could be reconciled and their aims and objects clearly delineated.
All the expenditure of local government should be financed out of taxes raised by local government subject to an adjustment for special needs financed by central government.
Devolving power carries with it a greater responsibility on the citizen to participate, so when power is devolved:
Local citizens should be left in no doubt that their system of government is going to change.   The change will involve them taking greater responsibility for their environment and services.   They must be left with no excuses if they refuse to participate.   Localism tends to involve, most immediately and controversially, variations in local taxes.   Such variations concentrate the democratic mind.   That is the franchise biting.   That is what drives people to vote. “Big Bang Localism by Simon Jenkins
The methods chosen for elections at local level vary considerably, but in England they are based on the First Past the Post system of election.   This produces much distorted results.   In the 2006 local elections in the London Borough of Newham, Labour with 41.8% of the vote got 90% of the seats.   At a National level, in the 2002 local elections the Conservative Party got 72.2% of the seats with only 43.9% of the votes.   It is one of the scandals of local politics and no doubt contributes to the reason why turnout in local elections is so low.
            This is clearly wrong and produces wholly unrepresentative local government.   In future:
            Local government elections should be conducted under the Single Transferable Vote system of proportional representation with three members in each ward.
One final point, democracy in Northern Ireland is distorted by entrenching the rights of minorities and entrenching the sharing of power.   The Belfast Peace Agreement can however claim one major success – after many years of terrorism it brought some stability to Northern Ireland and drastically reduced the number of terrorist acts.   This was critical.   However the democratic fault lines are now becoming apparent.   Because of power sharing there is no way for the will of the people to be fully exercised.   Minorities have to be protected, but that protection has to be with the consent of the majority and there has to be some mechanism by which ultimately the majority can exercise their will.   By giving a minority effective control in particular areas, at some point, the majority will rise against what is being done.
            Over a period of time the blocking mechanisms in the Northern Ireland Assembly should be reduced, eventually to zero, to bring Northern Ireland into line with normal democracy.


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