Things devolve, can the centre hold?

13th June 1997 at 01:00
POWER AND THE PEOPLE. By Vernon Bogdanor. Gollancz Pounds 16.99

Tam Dalyell considers the constitutional problems facing Britain today

Vernon Bogdanor, distinguished author, broadcaster, and professor of government at Oxford, writes with clarity and elegance. Power and the People addresses the problems of devolution, electoral reform, reform of the House of Lords, referendums, the funding of political parties, and the monarchy.

Bogdanor illuminates the distinction between devolution and federalism. Devolution is the transfer of powers at present exercised by ministers and Parliament to regional or sub-national bodies which are both subordinate to Parliament and directly-elected. Devolution, for Bogdanor, is a process by which Parliament transfers its powers without relinquishing its supremacy. He points out that, being subordinate, the regional and sub-national bodies could in the last resort be over-ruled by Westminster; or these bodies could be abolished by a decision of the British Government, supported by Parliament. This was precisely the fate of Stormont, the Parliament of Northern Ireland, abolished in 1972.

It is this characteristic of being a subordinate body which distinguishes devolution from federalism. Bogdanor believes that federalism, but not devolution, offers a legal guarantee to a sub-national layer of government.It would not, therefore, Bogdanor contends, be possible for the government of the United States unilaterally to abolish, for example, the legislature of California, Ohio, or even Delaware.

One difficulty, as I see it, that Bogdanor does not take into account in reaching conclusions friendly to devolution, is that there are many, many thousands of Scots, who are not, and will never be interested in any kind of subordinate assembly, and were they to be presented with such an animal,would go on and on wanting to transform it into something indistinguishable from federalism.

Perhaps many of the most ardent devolutionists are not really interested in devolution at all, as defined by Bogdanor, but in something fundamentally different - immutable federalism or independence. Is it acceptable to back a proposal for a change in the form of government, to a quite different form of government, by using the cloak of a seemingly less drastic change? I think not.

Bogdanor devotes half-a-dozen pages to the West Lothian Question. I should explain that it was not I who christened the WLQ. In 1978, after I had endlessly parroted, "How can I vote on health in Birmingham but not Bathgate, education in Liverpool but not Linlithgow?" Enoch Powell, with heavy sarcasm aimed at the government front bench of Michael Foot and John Smith, vouchsafed, "We have finally grasped, we are at last seized-of the point the honourable gentleman has been making. To save the time of the House" - (he said I had kept the House of Commons chuntering on for 47 parliamentary days) - "let us, for the sake of succinctness, call it the West Lothian Question."

Bogdanor considers the earlier version of the West Lothian Question which had baffled Gladstone as he talked over the Irish Home Rule Bills in the 19th century. Exclusion of Irish MPs from Westminster would remain constitutionally impossible so long as Ireland, and by implication Scotland, continued to remain part of the UK, taxed at Westminster.

In terms of strict logic, however, the West Lothian question - described by Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, in a speech on St Andrew's Day 1995, as "the Bermuda triangle of devolution" - is unanswerable without a general devolution to regions and nations within the state.

The chapter which follows devolution on electoral reform, as indeed for most writings on electoral reform, is for electoral reform buffs. The intricacies and variations of the single transferable vote are only for those immediately concerned to promote a different system. Bogdanor's contribution on the House of Lords is profound, but I fear that as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Richard Crossman, the last cabinet minister in charge of House of Lords reform proposals, any successor would be deserted by his cabinet colleagues at the eleventh hour, as Crossman was.

On the referendum, for Bogdanor the fundamental problem facing a government proposing one is how to decide the alternatives which should be presented to the voters.

The chapter on the funding of political parties has a delicious relevance in the month that MPs are told that we may go to jail for seven years if we indulge in sleaze.

Bogdanor's excellent chapter on the monarchy ironically concludes that the monarchy should be seen as the one major institution not in need of radical change.

Tam Dalyell is Labour MP for Linlithgow

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