William Hague Has Promised to Answer the West Lothian Question. That Should Mean an English Parliament. Watch This Space

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), February 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

William Hague Has Promised to Answer the West Lothian Question. That Should Mean an English Parliament. Watch This Space


Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)


William Hague is becoming rather good at distancing himself from the last Conservative administration. He has not gone as far as dismissing the Thatcher/Major years as "old Conservative". Why should he, when some elements of Thatcherism are still in fashion? But we have had an apology for the ERM debacle. In an interview with me last December he acknowledged that his party had misjudged its approach to local government. This week he went further, by declaring that "government in the 1980s and 1990s made us too comfortable with the status quo and blinded us to some of the pressures for constitutional change."

The latest regret was expressed in a lecture on constitutional reform delivered in a large ornate room at the Institution of Civil Engineers in Westminster. Both tone and setting conveyed a sense of high-mindedness. Here was a Tory leader ready to disown the relentless centralising of the past and to consider thinking the unthinkable on future reform.

But tone and setting can be deceptive. Hague's speech was not quite the break with the past that it first appeared to be. For sure, he told his party that there could be no return to the constitution as it was in 1997, which is being billed by senior Conservatives as a significant step forward. In truth it is merely taking account of political reality. No Conservative leader, not even John Major, could contest the next election pledged to abolish the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, Major said before the election that it would be impossible to "unscramble the omelette", and Stephen Dorrell, in his pre-election eccentric phase, was told off by party apparatchiks when he implied otherwise.

So Hague has posed the question that would have been raised by any leader in his position: "What happens to the defenders of the status quo when the status quo itself disappears?" His answer is to make the best of it with party advantage in mind and to cause difficulty for the government. I do not blame him for coming up with such an answer, but daring and high-minded it is not.

Consider the political context in which it was made. For now, there is no Scottish Parliament and the hereditary peers still vote. We do not know whether there will be a new voting system for the Commons, nor the details of the government's plans for local councils. In the short term Hague does not want to present the government with a"blank cheque", allowing it to steam ahead with its programme of reform without day-to-day opposition. At the same time he is gazing into the distant political horizon. The view is hazy, his thoughts on how he would change it even more so. Why, then, is he contemplating the constitutional landscape of 2002 now, rather than wait until more of the relevant legislation, most of which he will oppose, is on the statute books?

The answer is largely to do with short-term political expediency. Local elections will be held in May. The party that treated local government with contempt ended up with very few councillors representing it. …

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