One of the many things I find utterly fascinating about my adopted land is its unwritten constitution. Writing on the strength of an unwritten constitution, a book review in the recent Economist states it well enough:
The constitution was not a set of fundamental and broadly unalterable rules but simply “what happened”. The fact that government’s workings could easily and unobtrusively be changed was accounted a virtue: Britain escaped the ancestor worship that fixed canons like America’s imposed. Its elusive constitution seemed to ensure both stability and freedom. It was envied abroad and taken for granted at home.
Its strength of flexibility and malleability is at once its primary weakness: while it does an admirable job of adapting in most respects, on occasion the lack of clear and precise principles beyond the sovereignty of Parliament (and technically the Monarch) can lead to a ludicrously botched state of affairs. The piece in The Economist is rather quiet on the weaknesses inherent to the British constitution save for an observation attributed to the Queen herself: “The British Constitution has always been puzzling and always will be.” It is perhaps at its most puzzling when it comes to devolution of some powers to some regions.
I won’t get into the history much, but England sort of ended up dominating this island I live on, and tried to dominate the island to the west as well (while they mostly failed in that project ultimately, there are some residual manifestations). Possibly as a result, some people who live in the non-English bits of these islands view the English with some reservation bording on disdain. Indeed, it strikes me as provincial that supporters of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland aren’t merely unconcerned if England win or lose, they actively root, support, plot, and facilitate England’s demise. Now I’ll admit to generally not supporting UCLA, USC, or, god forbid, the Oregon freaking Ducks in their daily endeavours, yet when these teams reach the Rose Bowl at the expense of the University of Washington (a fairly safe bet these days unfortunately) I instinctively root for the Pac-10 against the heathens from the Midwest. Not so on these islands.
The constituent nations, even, yes, Cornwall
have also over the years appealed for a degree of, if not absolute, political autonomy. In a measured implementation, this I can appreciate and support (i.e. short of outright independence). However, in the tradition of the unwritten constitution lacking any set of guiding principles beyond what the Government of the day deems politically astute, the Labour implementation of devolution to Scotland and Wales was predictably botched.
The first attempt at devolution to Scotland and Wales was held in 1979. Both failed in referenda, convincingly in Wales and technically in Scotland. The version of devolution we have with us passed overwhelmingly in Scotland, barely in Wales, in 1997, possibly one of the few referenda that Labour have promised in their various election manifestos that they have carried through on. The resulting Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are close to powerless when contrasted with an American state, or even city in many cases. Scotland can vary the basic tax rate by up to three pence on the pound, which at least affords that body some democratic leeway (but, critically, not business tax, nor does the Scottish Parliament have any say over what remains of North Sea oil). Wales has neither the oil nor the taxation power. However, both Scotland and Wales do have a large say over how certain aspects of the budget allocated to them from Westminster, and it is here where some of the most striking anomalies arise.
The key fault with the current implementation of devolution is its asymmetry vis-a-vis the central government. Scotland has more power than Wales, they both have more and less than Northern Ireland, and everybody has more than any region in England. Tam Dalyell pointed out this anomaly back in 1977 with the so-called “West Lothian Question“. I assume that anybody who has read this far knows what it is, but in a nutshell, Scottish and Welsh MPs can vote on issues that affect England (and English voters), while English MPs are not eligible to vote on issues devolved to the Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament.
The West Lothian Question is best illustrated, at least in my current setting in my office in the Politics & International Relations department at an English university, by variance in university fees. Universities in the UK are funded, and ultimately administered (albeit very loosely) by the state. The Higher Education Act of 2004 basically tripled the tuition fee that students are responsible for paying, but not in Scotland, where higher education is a devolved power. It barely passed, by only five votes if I recall correctly. While there were obviously a large number of Labour rebels voting against the Blair Government, the overwhelming Labour majority in Scotland was critical in getting the Act passed. Remove these Scottish MPs from the equation, it fails. I often wonder how such an arrangement is consistent with basic democratic norms (and you can bet that I invite my students to consider this as they pay their fees).
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party, has been getting a fairly easy ride through his term of office, due in large part to Scotland historically receiving a higher than average per capita spending from Westminster, now in effect a grant given to the Scottish Parliament to spend (on those policy areas not reserved to Westminster). No Scottish Government, Labour or SNP, have had to take advantage of the basic taxation rate. This may change, which is a good thing.
This is not meant to be a rant against the British “Constitution” per se, and as Walter Bagehot wrote in his brilliant Victorian treatise The English Constitution, the American system is also far from perfect. Indeed, this paragraph made me chuckle this morning:
A hostile legislature and a hostile executive were so tied together, that the legislature tried, and tried in vain, to rid itself of the executive by accusing it of illegal practices. The legislature was so afraid of the President’s legal power, that it unfairly accused him of acting beyond the law. And the blame thus cast on the American Constitution is so much praise to be given to the American political character. Few nations, perhaps scarcely any nation, could have borne such a trial so easily and so perfectly. This was perhaps the most striking instance of disunion between the President and the Congress that has ever yet occurred, and which probably will ever occur.
Bagehot was writing about the impeachment of one Mr. Johnson. I also do not mean to suggest that there aren’t similar anomolies in the U.S. (see the District of Columbia for a hilarious example) or that Scotland, Wales, or even Cornwall deserve some degree of autonomy.
All I ask is that it be done right, and this clearly isn’t.