The Straw that broke democracy’s back

I’ve given in and subscribed to The Times for a month (just the one!), purely to access this piece: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/article4212654.ece

Here it is in full, with my comments after.

Let’s preserve our Union in law to stop the SNP pulling it apart
by Jack Straw

Now that Scotland has decisively spoken, after a campaign whose terms were set by the SNP for itself, we should follow the example of stable federated countries (the US and India, for example) and say: “This Union is now indissoluble.”

If independence would have been for good, so must the decision to stay. You can’t pull a living plant up by the roots again and again, and expect it to survive. Put this commitment to the Union in primary Westminster legislation. Of course, that could be changed but only by all the UK’s MPs. “Better Together” must mean what it says.

The promises of further devolution to Scotland will be honoured, and the settlements for Wales and Northern Ireland are being strengthened. Where does that leave England? Proposals for “English votes for English laws” are sedulously attractive. They have been repeated by David Cameron. However, I suggest that we English take a deep breath and examine whether they are remotely necessary, and even if they are, just how they would be put into practice.

This West Lothian question is, in truth, code for an assertion about Labour — that in government we have to rely on Scottish MPs for a majority. I am proud that Labour really is a unionist party (as were the Conservatives until their fateful decision in 1987 to use Scotland as a laboratory for the poll tax). But almost always, when we win a general election, we win south of the border as well.

In 32 years of Labour governments since the war, Labour has had to “rely” on Scottish MPs to remain in power for just 26 months (1964 to 1966 and March to October 1974). That’s including Welsh Labour MPs. But we also had more English MPs than the Conservatives throughout the Blair/Brown administrations, as well as in the 1966 and October 1974 elections.

The unique characteristic of this Union is that one component — England — has 84 per cent of the population. England’s population is projected to grow over the next 20 years by another 7 million — more than Scotland’s population of 5.3 million. This means that almost every issue that may look exclusive to England can have knock-on effects for the rest of the UK. Take the 2004 increase in tuition fees. It applied directly to England and Wales only. But its indirect effect went north of the border. The greater reliance on private funding of universities south of the border indirectly reduced the block grant to Scotland. Scottish MPs thus had a wholly legitimate stake in the outcome.

English votes for English laws has been tried before. Gladstone’s second Irish Home Rule Bill of 1893 came up with the “ins and outs solution”, in which Irish MPs at Westminster were to be able to vote on “imperial” matters, but not “domestic” ones. It was the Tory leader, AJ Balfour, who exposed its fundamental defects. The system, he said, “would carry the most serious evils in its train”. It would “threaten the ordinary procedure of parliament” and “shatter the cabinet system . . . if you never knew whether an issue was going to be identified as English-only or the UK as a whole”. After months of wrangling, Gladstone conceded. As Sir Malcolm Rifkind observed in 2006, creating “two classes of MP would be a constitutional abortion”.

If we now make a reality of devolution within England — where the real democratic deficit lies — and ensure a fairer share of the cake between the southeast and, for example, the north and northwest, much of the apparent attraction of two classes of MP will go. It’s certainly worth examining whether there’d be any role for an English grand committee to discuss “English” legislation but I suspect that even this might be more trouble than it was worth.

We do not, however, need to tie ourselves in knots about this. Politicians have a constant care for popular support. We’ve all learnt the excruciating lesson from the Conservatives’ “Scottish poll tax” debacle. We English should stop fretting. The Union, our Union, has been saved. It’s “asymmetrical”, it’s untidy. But, hey, it works.

[As justice secretary 2007-10, Jack Straw chaired the Labour government’s constitutional committee. He is MP for Blackburn]’

Jack Straw, demonstrating what he wants to do to democracy

Jack Straw, demonstrating what he wants to do to democracy

Em… right you are, Jack!

There are many things wrong with this piece by Jack Straw, but the title and related text are the most significant part, so I’ll only talk about that just now.

Jack Straw is currently an opposition MP – he doesn’t create government policy at the moment, although opposition MPs can still put forward legislation for the House of Commons to consider.

But he might not need that.

In this piece, Straw does propose something that will undoubtedly bring a sly grin to many faces in Westminster, particularly amongst the Tory rank and file, who are very much in a position to bring legislation to the fore. So this is dangerous.

What Straw is proposing is legislation which would see no part of the UK ever having the democratic right to secede. We would be locked in, with no say on the matter at all.

Oh yes, he provides a ‘concession’ in stating that he believes this could be overturned by the House of Commons, but what does that mean? That means that no matter how many people in any particular part of the UK wanted to leave, they couldn’t do so without first having this constitutional legislation overturned. They couldn’t even be asked in a referendum, like the one we’ve just had.

Mr Straw refers to the USA and India in this piece as countries whose constitutions don’t allow any part to ever leave, as if this is something we should be seeking to copy in the UK. Note that he doesn’t mention a certain close neighbour where this is causing major issues for people in part of it: Spain.

The people of Catalonia are massively in favour of independence, but the Spanish constitution does not allow for them to even hold a referendum. They’re having to hold an illegal referendum, arranged by the democratically elected Catalan Government, which the Spanish Government can simply choose to ignore – and that’s the line they’re taking. That’s what Straw is effectively proposing for here.

It is dangerous, it is irresponsible and, above all, it is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Our referendum question was not ‘Should Scotland be an independent country or always remain a part of the UK?’. The right to revisit the independence question at a later date, should the result have been No, was never taken off the table, and nor should it have been. Not even Cameron proposed that.

Every democracy, if they are true to the meaning of that word, should allow for the people to decide the status of their part of it, should they wish – whether that be a nation, a region, a county, or parts/groupings thereof. I include Scotland in that too, after we do become independent (if we’re ‘allowed’) – it would be hypocritical not to.

Labour are always claiming to be a progressive party, just as they claim to be a great many other things that they’re not. But this idea, if it is shared by others within the party, boots that word right out of the park.

Jack Straw, Labour’s former Home Secretary, Justice Secretary and Foreign Secretary – some of the most important and senior positions in government – is effectively wanting to roll back democracy with this proposal. He wants to take the will of the people out of the equation. And a large number of Tories will be readying themselves to jump right on-board with him, grinning from ear to Spock-like ear.

John Redwood, trying out Kirk's chair while he's on an away mission.

John Redwood, trying out Kirk’s chair while he’s on an away mission.

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6 thoughts on “The Straw that broke democracy’s back

  1. If Mr Straw proposes to legislate Scotland becomes legally bonded to the UK -FOREVER!!!!! without the consent of the Scottish people (that was not the agenda proposed at referendum) then Mr Straw can expect complete civil disobedience from both yes and no camps, who will both agree any joining or independence from the union can only be made by the people of that country this would require another referendum! Cannot believe the sheer injustice and ignorance of his arrogant, unethical, immoral and unbelievable unrighteous suggestion, a man without honour will cast long shadows on his deeds!

  2. Pingback: The Labour Party are in disarray – Daily Wales

  3. Your reading of Straw’s intervention is spot on. His position is essentially fascist. At least that is how it is understood in Spain, since the constitutional position is a legacy of Francoist centralism. It is both an intellectual, moral and practical absurdity that one generation could bind the will of another. Those who try to, commonly find themselves embroiled in bloody civil wars and years of conflict.

    It is fascism pure and simple.

  4. Err, try suggesting this in Northern Ireland, Mr Straw. I think you may find that the Peace Process doesn’t survive.

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