Monday, 12 September 2011

UKIP now supports devolution

The big thing to come out of UKIP's conference in Eastbourne this weekend for me was the release of a policy paper entitled "A Union for the Future".

The policy paper, written by Paul Nuttall MEP, is a complete rewrite of UKIP's badly written, unworkable devolution policy which basically involved abolishing the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales (but not NI) and replacing them with Grand Committees of British MPs.

This new policy paper has no such retrograde suggestions in it.  The current British House of Commons would be replaced with an English Parliament with English MPs, an English Executive and an English First Minister.  The House of Lords would be replaced by the British Parliament with British MPs, the British Executive and the British Prime Minister and will scrutinise legislation for all four home nations.

There are a couple of gaps in the policy paper but then it is only a two-page prĂ©cis.  One question I would like answered is what changes would be made to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Irish Assembly?  Will the powers they have be equalised with that of the Scottish and English Parliaments?  The policy is very anglo-centric so some questions need answering about how it will affect Scotland, Wales and NI when the policy paper is expanded upon.

Since this policy was announced there have been a few threads on the UKIP members' forum on it with the usual suspects scaremongering about devolution, claiming that it's the same thing as devolution, expensive, creates more politicians, etc.  So here is a list of devolution myths peddled by Big Britishers (the opposite to Little Englanders) debunked:
  • Devolution means breaking up the union
    Breaking up the union would be independence. Devolution is inherently unionist because you can't devolve power from the union government if the union doesn't exist to have a government. Devolution can only exist for as long as the union exists.
  • Devolution means more tiers of government
    The policy paper written by Paul Nuttall sees the regional tier of government in England being abolished when the English Parliament is created.  The two tiers of the British government would also be replaced by one.  That's a net reduction of one tier of government.
  • Devolution means more expense
    Paul Nuttall has clearly used the paper Chris Gill submitted to a House of Lords committee when he was Conservative MP for Ludlow as a base for his policy paper.  In that paper Chris detailed the basic cost savings that could be realised by making these changes.  Adjusted for current salaries and numbers of peers, the cost savings amount to almost half a billion a year.
  • This is playing into the EU's hands
    The EU has divided the UK into 12 euroregions.  Three of them coincide with national borders - Scotland, Wales and NI - but the other 9 are a dismemberment of England.  Establishing a national Parliament for the whole of England and doing away with the EU's regional government goes against what the EU wants.
  • There is no support for devolutionIndependent opinion polls consistently put support for either banning MPs not elected in England from voting on English laws or for creating an English Parliament at 7 out of 10.  As the former is an unworkable mess that doesn't actually address the core problem of having no politicians elected to represent English interests, the latter is the only option.
  • We already have an English Parliament: Westminster
    Westminster is home to the British government which is made up of British MPs elected in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Being elected to an English constituency doesn't make a British MP an English MP.  There hasn't been an English Parliament since 1707.
  • There's no votes in it
    Being the only party opposing membership of the EU hasn't got us an MP elected but it doesn't mean there are no votes in it, it means that voters think their vote will be wasted if they vote for UKIP or we don't offer enough policies they can support.  The reason the English Democrats haven't seen any real electoral success is because they are a tiny party crippled with debt and an ineffectual and toxic leadership and are being over-run with BNP members, not because their core message doesn't resonate with voters.
  • It will alienate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters
    How could anyone object to making England equal to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?  If it does then that says a lot about the people we're supposedly united with and UKIP has never retained a deposit in any Westminster or devolved election, should we discriminate against the 50m people who vote for us in large enough numbers to retain deposits so as not to upset the 10m who don't?
  • Our current policy is good enough
    No, really it's not.  There are so many reasons why it's wrong.  Here are a few ...
    • The Scots would declare independence if you tried to take their government away from them.
    • A Grand Committee of British MPs elected in British constituencies in Scotland and Wales to the British government is several retrograde steps back from Scottish and Welsh politicians elected in Scotland and Welsh constituencies in Scotland and Wales to a Scottish or Welsh government.
    • What happens if a British MP elected in England votes on something good for Britain and bad for England when they're sitting as the British Grand Committee and then it comes up when they're sitting as the English Grand Committee?  Do they denounce themselves and censure their own vote?
    • What happens when a bill is presented to the British Grand Committee that requires a change to the law in England, Scotland, Wales and NI?  As the British MP introducing it will also be a member of one of the national Grand Committees it's highly likely it will occur.  Will part of it be voted on by the British Grand Committee and then part of it be voted on by each of the four national Grand Committees who may suggest amendments that contradict each other?  That type of bill would take years to steer through all five Grand Committees, if ever so all that will happen is that the British Grand Committee would exercise its prerogative to vote on "devolved" issues and ride roughshod over themselves with their English/Scottish/Welsh/Northern Irish hats on.  And presumably complain to themselves about it to themselves over their boiled eggs.
    • Will the Chair of the British Grand Committee be banned from being Chair of one of the national Grand Committees?
    • Will the whip apply to both the British and national Grand Committees?  Will the whips be the same people or will the parties have whips that are whips one week of the month and not the next three?
    • The value of devolution is that it allows priorities and needs to be met when they are different to those of the other home nations.  Parties will impose the same policies across the UK on "devolved" matters because that's what they believe in nationally.
    • Grand Committees will only exist for as long as the British Parliament decides to tolerate their existence. They will have no constitutional basis, no executive powers, no dedicated politicians, no real legal basis.
    • Without a clearly defined (in law) list of what is and isn't devolved to another executive, MPs elected in one country will be able to claim an interest in a bill appearing to affect only one of the other county's if it involves spending money on the basis that money spent in one home nation means less to be spent in another.  An MP elected in Scotland made this claim the same day the Tories originally announced their (now abandoned) English Votes on English Laws policy.
If this policy paper makes it into the manifesto (and I would hope and expect it to do so) then it's not going to be a magic pill that suddenly gets UKIP into government but it's another string to our bow and another reason for people to vote for us.  Almost every supporter of devolution that I know is a eurosceptic but until this policy paper was announced, most of them wouldn't vote for UKIP because of our anti-devolution policy.

We won't get elected based on one core populist policy of leaving the EU - we have to offer more in exchange for peoples' votes.  The Hansard Society Audit of Public Engagement a couple of years ago showed that "Scottish MPs" voting on English matters was the biggest complaint voters had.  The EU came surprisingly low down the list of complaints (most likely because they don't understand how many of the things that annoy them are because of EU directives).  We have a flat tax policy with increased personal allowances - a great policy but how many people understand it or are turned on by it?  Not many.  We have a policy of Swiss-style Referenda which is another great policy but only two petitions on the British government's ePetitions site have achieved 100,000 signatures which suggests people either aren't motivated enough or don't think it will make a difference.

Devolution is different though - the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish already know how it works and the English are increasingly aware of it as well.  It's expressed as dissatisfaction with the way "Scottish MPs" vote on English laws and the amount of money "they" get compared to us but it's an awareness nonetheless.  An English Parliament is something that people rarely ask for until you ask them if they want it and then they get passionate about it and passion = votes.

The genie is out of the bottle where devolution is concerned and it's not going back in.  Devolution is here to stay so it has to be made to work.  Since devolution was introduced in Scotland and Wales support for independence in those countries has decreased but over the same 13 year period it has increased from basically zero to 36% in England.  What does that tell you?  It shows that devolution delivered (as unexpected as it may have been) on its promise to kill separatism in Scotland and Wales.  It has also, as predicted, resulted in a backlash against the union and in particular the Scots, in England.

The union will break up within my lifetime, it's a matter of timing now.  I'm not anti-union, I'm agnostic towards it - I won't shed a tear when the union breaks up but then I probably won't throw a party either.  It would be fair to say most people in UKIP are unionist and I think that on balance most of the population of the UK is too and that's why UKIP should support devolution.  If we carry on as we are the union will have broken up in less than a decade.  If power is devolved equally and meaningfully to national parliaments then it will last a lot longer.  Big Britishers and Little Englanders alike should support UKIP and this policy.

Finally, I would like to say well done to UKIP's Paul Nuttall, Annabelle Fuller and Gawain Towler for dragging UKIP's stance on devolution kicking and screaming into this millennium and to Eddie Bone and Scilla Cullen from the Campaign for an English Parliament for making sure the new policy doesn't end up a constitutional abomination.