Magazine article The Spectator

How to Settle the Scots, the Welsh and the Lords in One Senatorial Stroke

Magazine article The Spectator

How to Settle the Scots, the Welsh and the Lords in One Senatorial Stroke

Article excerpt

The Labour Party has now been in existence almost a century and has formed five governments. All have been failures and all for the same reasons: an unrealistic approach to the handling of public finance and a failure to contain spending. At long last Labour seems to have learned these lessons. When, as I hope, it forms its sixth government later this year, it will, right from the start, keep expenditure under the strictest control and nurture the economy with all the cautious pessimism hitherto practised by Conservatives alone. Unfortunately, having at last corrected its cardinal fault, Labour's sixth experiment in government seems likely to fall headlong, wholly through its own choice, into an entirely different pit - constitutional reform.

This is very hard on Tony Blair who, left to himself, would leave the Constitution exactly as it is. No government in its senses tackles the Constitution if it has something better to do, and Blair has plenty. But he inherited a party which, for many years, held a minority of seats in England and a large majority in Scotland and Wales. During this period, Labour drifted into a binding commitment to give the Scots and Welsh their own extra tiers of government. Now Labour is within weeks of winning a majority of English seats again but finds itself stuck with the pledge. To make matters worse, Blair is also saddled with a horribly unsatisfactory plan to reform the House of Lords by excluding hereditary peers and filling their places with government-appointed ones.

Which of these two measures is more reprehensible it would be hard to say. As Dr Johnson remarked, `There is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.' But one thing is clear: both these legislative vermin will occupy an unconscionable amount of parliamentary time and government energy. They will be attended by all kinds of political and legal pitfalls as yet wholly unforeseen, as well as the countless ones which can already be predicted, and will provide an endless procession of field days for all the Constitution-nutter MPs, of whom there are plenty on all sides of the House. As a result, nothing else of substance will be done for an entire parliament.

If Labour people don't believe me, let them study the difficulty the masterful Mr Gladstone, with a huge majority, experienced in getting through the 1880 parliament the mere procedural change required to allow an atheist MP to take the oath. Tony Blair would be mad to take on two such burdens, which have absolutely nothing to do with his main political aims. Indeed, it would make sense for him to say, here and now, 'I will not do it.'

However, I have a proposal which might help him to escape from his dilemma. It would solve the problems both of Scottish and Welsh devolution and of House of Lords reform at one and the same time and, by way of a bonus, actually improve the machinery of parliamentary government. Neither the Welsh, nor even the Scots, are all that enthusiastic about having their own parliament, and would be content with something a good deal less elaborate and expensive, provided it effectively amplified their voice in government. As for the Lords 'reform', no one at all wants the change proposed, other than those who hope personally to benefit from it. …

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