Opinion: How do we answer the West Kensington question?

I swore blind that I would not get drawn into what promises to be a long running battle over Scottish independence but Simon Hughes’ call for an English Parliament to answer the West Lothian Question has prompted me to pen this piece.

Scottish Nationalists wrongly claim that there is an easy solution to the West Lothian Question – independence for Scotland. They fail to remember that we still have devolution in Northern Ireland, Wales and the London Assembly.  Independence for we Scots doesn’t make the issue go away for others.

We still refer to it as the West Lothian Question but it is as much the West Bromwich question or the West Kensington question. Why should Simon Hughes get to vote on issues relating to policing and transport in West Bromwich when his counterparts representing that area don’t get a say over the Met or London’s transport issues?

I posed this question 10 years ago to former Scottish Secretary and Kensington MP, Malcolm Rifkind. Rifkind had taken against devolution having been a keen supporter in his early career. I challenged him that the Tories, the main opponents of devolution, had never complained about the existence of Stormont before 1974 when it sent a majority of Unionists to bolster the Westminster Majorities. Why complain now when the boot was on the other foot? That consummate performer couldn’t give a convincing answer.

Our constitution is littered with anomalies. We have an asymmetric quasi federalism in the UK and there are not easy routes towards correcting the constitutional anomalies relating to that.  The UK is made up of three and bit Nations who are not equal in terms of size or whose elected bodies are not equal in terms of powers. Scotland has a law making parliament and Northern Ireland and Wales have assemblies with varying degrees of powers; and then we have London with a directly elected Mayor and Assembly. The question of the appropriate route for devolution in England is thus fundamental.

Devolution was demanded by the non English nations of the UK in response to the feeling that Government was too remote and that Whitehall and Westminster no longer understood what our needs were. Would setting up an equally remote additional Chamber representing the whole of England really bring government closer to the people? Is the best form of devolution an English Parliament or would it be Regional Assemblies able to drive economic development of their areas forward more effectively?

Devolution was also demanded because as Nations, there was a deep desire to reflect that sense of national identity within the political system. Scotland always has had separate legal, educational and religious institutions.  Regional identities can be strong in England but are they defined as well as elsewhere?

Home Rule was also demanded because we felt, rightly or wrongly, that our Government in the 80’s actively hated us. I do not believe that we have that any more but until Westminster starts to give us the feeling that we are not at best taken for granted there I fear nationalists will have the upper hand.

Ultimately the desire for Home Rule in Scotland, Wales and Ireland was a desire that grew from the bottom up and was not imposed upon us by patrician politicians telling us what we needed. England’s grassroots need the time to develop their own desire for answers, and indeed their own answers to this question. What is clear is that we are not going to have a mathematically pure and equal solution to this issue.

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28 Comments

  • Thanks for the comments all. There was a legendary tale of Jo Grimond filling out his expenses and when it asked for his local railway station he put Stravanger!

    I never mentioned the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands which has far more autonomy than any where else in the UK!

    Not sure I buy the notion that all Nationalism is evil though. The European revolutions of 1848 were about throwing of Imperial Oppressors and were also liberal revolutions -they difference there was they were really being oppressed. I think we Scots may have had a case with Thatcher I just don’t feel any more oppressed than your average Geordie these days!

  • Yes, nationalism always turns out badly. Just ask the Irish if they regret no longer being British subjects, or the Norwegians if they regret no longer being part of Sweden, or the Lithuanians if they pine for the Soviet Union, or the South Sudanese, or the Slovaks, or the Slovenes, or the Canadians, or anyone from any of the other dozens of countries that gained their independence from another at some point in their history. I’m sure they all regret going down that cul de sac.

  • Stephen Gash 25th Jan '12 - 7:33pm

    This article is full of holes. Firstly, the West Bromwich Question is fallacious and vacuous. The laws for England are decided by the UK parliament and policing in England falls within that remit. There has always been a level of autonomy afforded to police constables. The London Assembly has nowhere near the powers of the Scottish parliament, indeed Scotland has its own system of jurisprudence.

    The England-hating devolutionists have always wanted to hive off London from England to make it a city state, as a prelude to breaking up England altogether. When this has been achieved the still intact nations of Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland can go their merry way of independence leaving the English utterly disenfranchised. Job done for the EU-philes and England-haters.

    Secondly, there was little or no demand for devolution in the nations outside of England. Both the Welsh and Scots rejected devolution and were told to think again. The Welsh had their second referendum result fiddled to ensure the Welsh Assembly was established. Last year 35% of Welsh voters turned out of whom 63% voted for increased powers. This was hardly a grab-yer-throat demand was it? Just 22% of the total electorate. Nervertheless tthe Welsh Assembly had its power increased.

    BTW Monmouthshire was moved to Wales from England in the ’70s and the people there have always voted “no” in Welsh Assembly referenda. Hardly a ringing endorcement for the much-vaunted localism the LibLabCON bangs on about.

    Using the same rules applied to the Welsh referenda, we in England would certainly have an English parliament if we were given a referendum on one. So, why can’t we have one?

    The main reason we don’t have an English parliament is because we are in the United Kingdom. If we were not in the UK then England would have its own parliament by default. That is enough reason for England to get out of the UK.

  • Stephen my point was that there is a London Assembly and a Mayor with a range of devolved powers from Westminster not devolved to the by the people of West Bromwich. Why always cast this inequity as a Scotland thing when it is just as valid as elsewhere .

    Your branding of people who want to stay in the UK but want more power decentralised as English Haters is fallacious and vacuous to coin a phrase. It really defies logic. It is a valid criticism of some nationalists, but not all, and certainly is not part of the devolution mantra which still sees a role for a constitutional link with England. I don’t hear any sounds from North of the border for London to be cast adrift in fact the only person I can recall ever advocating something like that was Lord Archer. My main point was that this is asymmetric and will always be so.

    Your point about Scotland having rejected devolution in 1979 is incorrect. The referendum was won albeit by a small majority.

    Ivan – points well made. I don’t see belief in the Nation State as at odds with liberalism and you have to have a sense of identity if you are moving towards a Nation State. I see no problem with being patriotic and loving your country. I do with that being taken a stage further and hating another persons country or culture.

    If Europe circa 1848 was positive nationalism did the grandchildren of those revolutionaries inevitably morph into a negative nationalism 70 years later when things started to go wrong?

  • Nicola,

    The hatred my mother has for the ruling classes of Britain, or well its more Ireland being ruled by Britain, is still incredibly destructive in my view.

    Are you suggesting that it was nationalism or the fight for independence that caused that hatred? I rather suspect it was precisely the other way around.

  • Paul,

    Ivan – points well made. I don’t see belief in the Nation State as at odds with liberalism and you have to have a sense of identity if you are moving towards a Nation State. I see no problem with being patriotic and loving your country. I do with that being taken a stage further and hating another persons country or culture.

    Actually I’m not in the least bit patriotic, or particulaly bothered about my national identity as a Scot. I just happen to be less unpatriotic about Scotland than I am about the UK. I support Scottish independence because I think an independent Scotland will be better governed, but also because anything that diminishes the power and international standing of Westminster, anything that punctures British nationalism, anything that weakens or even just shakes up the moribund UK constitution is, by definition, A Good Thing, ultimately for all the people of these islands.

  • Cllr Colin Strong 26th Jan '12 - 1:19am

    Paul Edie said “I never mentioned the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands which has far more autonomy than any where else in the UK!”

    That is because those islands are not within the UK nor the EU. They are crown dependencies and this special relationship goes back many centuries.

  • Ivan
    Posted 25th January 2012 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
    Yes, nationalism always turns out badly.

    You left out Bosnia and Kosovo from your examples.
    Guess you never hear/read Welsh nationalists telling anyone (including fellow Welshmen/women) who disagrees with them even slightly to “— off to England, then”.

    It’s bad enough the attitude of “I support two teams: Wales and anyone who plays England”.

    Until we had a united kingdom, we had wars between England and Wales, England and Scotland.
    Breaking it up may not lead to another Culloden, but the devolution debate is already stirring up resentments and divisions.
    United we stand. Divided, we end up with a bunch of poxy little states with as much clout as Lichenstein or Luxembourg.

  • You left out Bosnia and Kosovo from your examples.

    I’m not really sure what point you’re making here. In both of these cases nationalism and ethnic tension led to the desire for independence, not the other way around, and the violence that occurred was at least as much the fault of the Yugoslav/ Serbian nationalists who opposed the independence of these regions as it was the fault of the minorities who sought their own states.

    And even in spite of the horrible way they gained their independence, what do you think the result would be if you asked the people of Bosnia or Kosovo today if they’d like to be re-integrated into Serbia?

    Guess you never hear/read Welsh nationalists telling anyone (including fellow Welshmen/women) who disagrees with them even slightly to “— off to England, then”.

    It’s bad enough the attitude of “I support two teams: Wales and anyone who plays England”.

    Until we had a united kingdom, we had wars between England and Wales, England and Scotland.
    Breaking it up may not lead to another Culloden, but the devolution debate is already stirring up resentments and divisions.

    But these attitudes already exist! And they’ve always existed. They aren’t being caused by the debate, they are the (partial) cause of the debate.

    Of course there are bigoted fools in Wales, and there are bigoted fools in Scotland, and as a Scot who’s lived in various parts of England I can assure you that there are plenty of bigoted fools in England too. That is the case now and it will be the case after the referendum, whatever the outcome. There are fools everywhere, at all times.

    United we stand. Divided, we end up with a bunch of poxy little states with as much clout as Lichenstein or Luxembourg.

    Amusing that you decry (and indeed insult) the two richest little countries on the planet, whose citizens enjoy the highest standard of living. Yeah, wouldn’t want to be anything like them.

    See, here’s the thing. I don’t care about what clout “we” have, because this “we” isn’t really a “we”, it’s a “they”, and for the entirety of my life “they” have been people I don’t particularly like, most often Tories. What I care about is how well the country is run in the interests of its citizens. If we can be a bit more like Luxembourg or Liechtenstein then that will be precisely the progress I seek by supporting Scottish independence.

    Do you know what sort of person cares about the “clout” wielded by the leaders of his country more than the standard of living of his fellow citizens?

    A nationalist, that’s what sort.

  • “Guess you never hear/read Welsh nationalists telling anyone (including fellow Welshmen/women) who disagrees with them even slightly to “— off to England, then”.”

    Welsh people have been —ing off to England since the Middle Ages. And English people have been —ing off to Wales since that time, too. Which is why Welsh nationalism will never win an ounce of support outside the Welsh-speaking areas.

    “Breaking it up may not lead to another Culloden, but the devolution debate is already stirring up resentments and divisions.”

    Culloden had nothing to do with Scottish nationalism. It was a dispute between those who wished to impose an absolute Stuart monarchy on the whole of the United Kingdom and those who wished to retain the Hanoverian monarchy that ruled in conjunction with Parliament. The majority of those fighting on the government side at Culloden were Scots. Those who rebelled agains the Hanoverian monarchy were tricked into so doing by the French.

    See how phony these resentments and divisions actually are?

  • @Oranjepan

    Ivan,
    re: Luxembourg and Lichtenstein.

    If average standard of living was the only value which counted you may have a point, but it’s not.

    I didn’t say it was, I just pointed out that neither is “clout”, in direct response to cassie’s comment.

    “That ‘independence’ takes on such an important symbolic position shows the irrelevance of the people proposing it. Because if it were about better government, why would they wish to prevent neighbours from recieving the same advantages?

    But it’s you who wishes to prevent your neighbours from seeking better governance, not me. My hope is that Scottish independence will be the sort of event that might shake the constitutional tree right across the UK and ultimately lead to improvements in the way the other nations are governed too (if for nothing but purely selfish reasons, given that I live in England), but if it doesn’t then Scotland free from the dead hand of Westminster is still better than doing nothing, which is the one course guaranteed to lead to more of the same.

    “I’m offended by Alex Salmond claiming Scotland is the 6th richest country in the OECD, and claiming Westminster is to be blamed for holding Scots back. I know he intends to cause offense, but I also know it is an unsustainable political position in the event secession is achieved.”

    I seriously doubt he means to cause offence, I think his point is a counter to the familiar but rapidly crumbling unionist trope that Scotland is “too wee, too stupid, and too poor” to be independent. As for whether he thinks Westminster is to blame for holding Scotland back, of course he does, and so do I. I also happen to think the same thing about the English, and the Welsh, and the Northern Irish, individually and collectively. It just happens that in Scotland there’s a viable alternative, and I’ve yet to hear any coherent (never mind convincing) argument why the Scots shouldn’t take the opportunity given that it’s the only one going.

  • @ wit and wisdom

    “Ivan, I am a unionist because I believe in the shared union, not because I dismiss Scotland as too whatever.

    OK, but why? Genuine question. What is it that you, as a liberal, see in the union – in the functional apparatus of the state – that you think is worth saving?

    It is in no one’s interest for Scotland to secede from the highly successful union.

    Obviously I disagree. I think it’s in everyone’s interests, most of all the people of Scotland.

    The coherent argument why the Scots shouldn’t be allowed to vote on independence is because it is not for Scots alone to decide as the decision will affect us all. A simple analogy is a shared house with a shared tenancy. If one party leaves the others will be adversely affected. Scotland is part of a union and its decision to secede will impact on us all. We should all therefore have a say and there must be a detailed consideration about what happens. Anything else is frankly selfish and I for one will respond accordingly to ensure that my country’s interests are best served.

    Sorry, but the idea that any nation seeking independence should need the permission of the state from which it wishes to secede is simply absurd. To use your analogy, in a shared house with a shared tenancy if one party wishes to leave there is nothing the other can do to stop them. All they can do is negotiate the terms.

    I am increasingly reassured by the discussion though. As has been said above, if Alex Salmond goes the independence push disintegrates, just as the SNP nearly did a few years ago when he stepped down as leader.

    At the 2003 election under Swinney the SNP lost about 5% of the vote and 8 seats, all of which swing went to the pro-independence SSP and Greens. Clearly Swinney isn’t of the calibre of Salmond, but you can hardly say that the independence push disintegrated.

    I will continue to argue vigorously for the union and its benefits for us all but I will also be more confident that, as Tolstoy said, time is the greatest of all warriors. Alex Salmond might just have created his own Achilles’ heel by planning for this in 2 years, rather than seeking to ride the wave he is on now.

    Indeed he might, but the opposite may also be true, and I think in the long run time is the friend of the nationalists. After all, they only have to win the argument once, the unionists have to keep on winning it forever.

  • The real West Kensington question is the proposal by the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham in conjunction with the Rotten Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, to demolish the historic Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre, and the longstanding communities on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, in order to build an 80-acre, 30-storey dystopia which will take 20 years to build and disrupt a wide area of London, ruin our skyline, lead to widespread congestion on the trains, the tube and the roads, and coincidentally net the Tories’ developer friends billions of pounds in profits: http://hflibdems.org.uk/en/document/earls-court-newsletter-august-2011.

    The answer to the West Kensington question is of course NO, but is anybody listening?

  • I live in England. I paid £15 for a prescription yesterday. If I were in Scotland, I would not have to pay it. That’s why I support an independent Scotland and an iindependent England. That is the only answer to the West Lothian question. I do not see how splitting England into regions would be workable; for instance, woudl different counties have different levels of tuition fees or prescription charges. I understand that regional government fro England has almost always been rejected when it has been offered to the vote. On the whole, I do not think that the English are particularly “regionally-minded” people, London and Cornwall seem to the only exceptions.

  • Michael Parsons 30th Jan '12 - 11:28am

    Surely the liberal reform tradition is wedded to Home Rule which we fought so long and hard for with regard to Ireland. In essence this is the right to Dominion status, starting with Canada in 1836 and carried forward to India and beyond. It is a constitutional tradition that has been applied round the world and to places far less likely than Scotland. As such it is a matter for Scots voters to decide, as it was for Ireland, or Malawi or India or wherever. We can only wish them luck!

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