As I have argued elsewhere, English votes for English laws would be impossible to implement without a written constitution and would lead to discrimination against Scots MPs. But the creation of an English Parliament also provides a poor solution to the “West Lothian Question”.
Devolution to an English Parliament, a separate institution from the House of Commons, has some attractions. It would have power to vote on domestic legislation over education, health, transport and anything else that is also devolved in Scotland. It would be the English equivalent of the Scottish Parliament. It could work but it is not ideal and here is why.
First, presumably an English-wide government in London would be established alongside the UK government that would continue to look after foreign, defence and monetary policies. Would this be popular or effective? Second, it seems that that the DevoMax on offer for Scotland will not necessarily be matched in Wales and Northern Ireland. It is difficult to see how England-wide devolution could work unless there is absolute equality in powers exercised by the devolved parliaments and governments of the four countries. Third, even with equal DevoMax across the board, and equality between English and Scots MPs at Westminster given that the separate UK-wide government would be left as the non-devolved federal shell, England would still dominate. England makes up over 80% of the population of the UK. This would be a top-heavy federation, comparable to the role of Prussia from 1871 to 1932, which maintained separate institutions from Germany. The unhappy politics of Weimar Germany were worsened by turf wars between the two governments in Berlin, particularly when the Social Democrats continued to be in the Prussian government, while in opposition at the German level. An English government could destabilise not only the UK government but also the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The remaining solution is symmetrical federalism to the existing devolved administrations and to new regional governments throughout England. This means allowing those new administrations powers equal to those exercised by Scotland. Again this would leave the UK parliament and government with MPs who were equal and Ministers who would look after UK-wide, non-devolved powers.
We would hear that nobody in England wants regional government as we saw in the referendum over devolution in the North-East of England in 2004. That was a campaign led by John Prescott to introduce a regional government with very limited powers that was vulnerable to attack by a ‘no’ campaign focused on the ills of “useless” bureaucracy. There was no constitutional convention or engagement of citizens. If we talk of proper federalism based on DevoMax, and having engaged civil society in a proper debate, the chance to determine tax, spending, health, education, transport, police, justice, and almost everything that government does except for foreign, defence and monetary policies may be more popular – particularly since these powers would move from London without duplications. Regional identity in England varies, but there is a strong sense of identity in Yorkshire, the Midlands, London, and the South. What need to be abandoned are the regions invented by John Prescott. They are mostly too large and lack identity. Smaller counties with very strong identities could be regions, and this could include Cornwall. Micro-regions prosper in other countries, for example Ceuta (82,000 people) in Spain, Corsica (300,000) in France or the Aosta Valley (120,000 people) in Italy. Prescott’s regions lacked any chance of identity-formation precisely because they were too large and too few. Within England, he created only nine of them. This compares to 20 in Italy and 22 in France, which have a similar population size to the UK. In Spain, 40 million people live across 19 regions.
In each of these countries, regional government was set up without referendums but popular allegiance seemed to follow. Regionalisation in England could be accepted by a national referendum rather than piecemeal as with the failed case of the North-East, and if this were the will of a constitutional convention that engaged civil society and public opinion. Moving the bulk of domestic policy from a diminished Whitehall to regions or groups of counties with some sense of identity could be an invigorating prospect for English democracy. Many Scots seem to approve of increased fiscal powers and ending the Barnett formula that over-rewards Scotland. Keeping money within one’s own devolved region could be remarkably popular, particularly with voters in southern England.
Due to the referendum on Scottish independence, the UK government has committed itself to legislation for increased devolution of powers, or DevoMax. In return, a further reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster or taking away their right to vote on legislation for England is in the offing.
Because of devolution, Scotland is already disenfranchised in aspects of EU policy-making. In devolved policy areas, the Scottish government has no formal vote on the Council of the European Union, where police cooperation in Europe, agricultural, transport or environment policies are represented by UK ministers. The British (English) Secretary of State takes legislative decisions in the EU Council in precisely these areas that are already devolved.
In policy-making there are often grey areas over who has competence (see further down for my comments on shared competence). Who will decide if a law applies only to England and Wales, but not to Scotland? Will it be the Supreme Court? Without the UK acquiring a written constitution, will the Supreme Court or some other agent like the Speaker of the House of Commons adjudicate? Or will the authors of bills, whether the government or ordinary MPs, tick a box from the start to indicate that the bill will not apply in Scotland and will therefore exclude Scottish MPs from the right to vote? What if a Labour government or a Labour MP proposes a bill whose likely effect will be only on England but to make it easier to pass declares that it is an all-UK bill? What if the bill is genuinely declared to be England-only but due to its regulatory effects, it requires de-facto compliance elsewhere in the UK? Would Scottish MPs still be allowed to be UK Ministers in departments like the Foreign Office or Ministry of Defence whose policy areas are not devolved? What about the Treasury given that some taxes won't be devolved and given the Treasury's oversight of sterling? What about the Home Office, where police matters are devolved but immigration isn’t? Since the Home Office will continue to manage immigration, surely a Scottish MP should not be disqualified from becoming Home Secretary.
The “West Lothian Question” of Scots MPs voting on English matters but not having the power to vote on matters back in Scotland is a problem. Can “English votes for English MPs” be solved by a written constitution with judicial application that can be widely viewed as legitimate? In federal systems like Germany and Switzerland, the Constitutions define exclusive competences for the federal and state levels. They also list shared competences where either the federation or the state can legislate. Even a tight written constitution on this model would presumably allow shared competences, in which case Scottish MPs would still be voting on English matters and sometimes English-only MPs would be voting on matters that also affected Scotland.
English votes on English laws would be impossible to implement and adjudicate, and would undermine the equality between elected members of the House of Commons. I explore an English Parliament and symmetrical federations in a further piece [click here].
Today’s ruling at the Appeal Court in Milan quashed Berlusconi’s conviction for underage prostitution and abuse of office.
The lower court had convicted Berlusconi to seven years of house arrest and a lifetime ban from public office for this double offence. In Italy, prostitution is illegal if the prostitute is under 18. It seems that the appeal court cleared him of the underage prostitution offence because he convinced the court that the prostitute had lied about her age and that he genuinely believed she was over 18. To a UK audience this seems incredible, since the excuse of believing that a minor was over 16 or over 18 in a sex case has never been permissible.
As for the abuse of office case, the very same underage prostitute committed a minor theft from a third party some weeks later and was arrested. From inside the police station, she called the then Prime Minister on her mobile phone. Afraid that she would spill the beans to the police, Berlusconi (as Prime Minister) telephoned the Police Chief and asked him to release the young woman because she was the grand-daughter of the President of Egypt and that her arrest would cause a diplomatic incident. (For the record, the woman in question is not related to any ruling families in the Arab World.) This was not denied at the Appeal. However, on a legal technicality he was just cleared because that charge of abuse of office only applies if the recipient of the request (the police chief) gained something from the request such as promotion or another favour in kind:
It therefore seems that the underage prostitution occurred as did the abuse of public office despite Berlusconi being cleared on legal grounds by the Court. For now, it is not totally finished, since the prosecution has the right to lodge a counter-appeal in front of Italy’s Court of Cassation. However, the case would have more time to run if the Court of Cassation found against Berlusconi because it has the power only to uphold the decision of the Appeal Court or to order a re-trial in a lower court, which would mean returning to square 1.
To form a parliamentary group in the European Parliament, an assortment of at least 25 MEPs from at least seven member states must come together. Group formation allows allocated speaking time in debates, committee membership, financial resources and the provision of research and advice to MEPs working on policy in their committees. In other words, to form a group is essential if you want to get things done. Unlike the Italian Parliament, the European Parliament has no "mixed group". MEPs without an affiliation have to sit on their own at the back of the chamber and without resources.
Beppe Grillo's Five-Stars-Movement may wish to avoid links to the far-right or to anyone who is corrupted. It could ally with independents or with new protest parties born from the economic crisis. The Grillo movement already has 17 MEPs and therefore needs a minimum of eight more from at least six other countries. Not including UKIP, here is a menu to choose from:
Alternative for Germany – 7 MEPs. The AfD would prefer an alliance with the British Conservatives. However, if Cameron refuses them in order not to offend Angela Merkel, the AfD could prefer Grillo over UKIP given that AfD shares the Five-Stars-Movement's opposition to the euro but not the EU. Grillo would have to tone down his anti-German rhetoric in this case. If the AfD is not available, there is the comic Die Partei (1 MEP) from Germany, which could converge in policy with Grillo and/or the German Tierschutzpartei (1 MEP), which is an ecological party that broke away from the official Greens in Germany.
Possibly Podemos, a new left-wing protest movement born from the indignados with 5 MEPs. Podemos might not get into the European United Left Group led by Alexis Tsipras, because Spain already has another party in that group. If refused by the Tsipras bloc, Podemos could ally with Grillo unless Grillo's links with Farage have already undermined any chance for his Movement to ally with small left-wing parties. Also from Spain and mutually exclusive from Podemos is the centrist, anti-decentralisation, UPyD with 4 MEPs. It can’t get into the ALDE (Liberal) Group because its views conflict with those of the Catalan and Basque nationalists already resident there. Grillo could provide it with the only home available.
The new anti-censorship protest party BBT has 2 MEPs and no realistic hope of getting into a centrist group in the EP unless it can reach a deal with Grillo. BBT arose in the recent street protests in Bulgaria against corruption and media control. Its root is therefore quite similar to that of the Five-Stars-Movement and Podemos in Spain.
The Slovak Liberals SAS (1 MEP) are centrist and liberal but anti-euro. They have indicated that they don’t want to be part of the ALDE Liberal Group but could prefer the Conservatives. The problem is that the European Conservatives led by the British Tories already host a different Slovak party. If SAS wants to leave ALDE and can’t get into the ECR, Grillo would be the obvious destination.
Luke “Ming” Flanagan was elected as an independent on an anti-austerity, anti-euro, pro-drugs liberalisation ticket. He could join the Green Group but why not join Grillo given the discredit in which the Green Party of Ireland stands and his opposition to EMU if not the EU, an approach he shares with Grillo and the AfD. One prize that Grillo could offer Flanagan is membership of whichever EP committee Flanagan chooses. Given Flanagan's past record, either Citizens' Rights and Freedoms or the Economics Committee come to mind.
Mircea Diacanu is an independent MEP and ex-Liberal. If the ALDE group won’t have him back, Grillo is the obvious choice. However, there are rumours that the Romanian National Liberals intend to defect from the ALDE to the EPP. If this happens, then ALDE would welcome Diacanu as an independent. Grillo just has to bid higher.
New left-wing protest party Varjemen (1 MEP) might ally with Grillo unless it can get into the Green or European Left groups.
Like the German Tierschutzpartei, the animal rights’ party (PVDD – 1 MEP) might be available if it can’t get into the Green Group. A Grillo group could offer the PVDD greater flexibility than the Greens if the structure of a Grillo group is loose and about resource provision for independents. One asset that Grillo could offer to both the Tierschutzpartei and the PVDD that the Greens may not be able to match is guaranteed membership of the Environment or Agriculture Committees.
Some of the parties listed above may find homes elsewhere or be mutually incompatible. Members from at least seven countries: Italy, Germany, Spain, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Ireland, Romania could be recruited. What makes this less likely is that Grillo may have put potential future allies in a difficult position by so visibly embracing Nigel Farage. It is difficult to see how he could reach agreement with Romanian, Bulgarian or Spanish leftist Podemos MEPs given his endorsement of Farage as a non-racist.
If the Five-Stars-Movement/UKIP Group goes ahead, Grillo faces a further difficulty. From which five other parties will such a group draw its minimum number of members? The Danish People's Party, Latvian Fatherland and Freedom Party (TB/LNNK), True Finns, and Sweden Democrats are still planning to be in a group with UKIP. Does the Five-Stars-Movement really want to share space with them?
Against charges of extremism, I had previously defended Alexis Tsipras. His party emerged from Synapsismos, which represents the Euro-Communist tradition in Greece. Historically, this reformed Communist tradition in the 1980s was led by the Italian Communists and found also in the Spanish United Left and the Swedish Left Party, whereas the Greek KKE and the French and Portuguese Communists remained resoundingly Stalinist. Coming from that reformed Euro-Communist tradition, I had assumed that Tsipras was ok, but seeing him on Thursday evening’s televised debate with Juncker, Schulz, Verhofstadt and Keller showed that I was mistaken.
In response to questions on how to deal with the economic crisis or European unemployment, he was able to mouth only generalities such as increased public spending and came across as badly briefed. A Communist worth his salt should have been able to say rather more. Although avoiding the problem of public debt, Ska Keller of the Greens was able to come up with policy solutions around investing in new (green) industries, renewables, the digital agenda and so. Guy Verhofstadt offered something new beyond traditional neo-liberalism by promising a real single market in finance, the digital economy (allowing European googles and twitters in the future), and a single energy market, allowing for new jobs and consumer choice. Martin Schulz of the Socialists offered much of the same though combined with investment and an equalities agenda. The EPP’s Jean-Claude Juncker failed to inspire, offering investment subject to sound finance. They all did ok except Tsipras for lack of substance and Juncker for lack of communication skills.