A marvellous report on the BBC today that the Scottish Executive is being sidelined in the making of UK policy at European level. (Read the report here.) Of course, such an assessment – which originated in the Brussels office of the Scottish Executive itself – is fuel for the forthcoming election campaign, where the SNP is arguing for Scotland to become a member state of the European Union in its own right, leaving the United Kingdom.
The complaint is that officials in London, at the UK level, do not understand the implications of devolution for the way in which they make policy or adopt positions in the Council. For very many areas of policy, the government in Scotland has its own competence: the old notion of a centralised United Kingdom is no more.
Quite what conclusions the Scots make of this is a matter for them. As an Englishman and a federalist, I think there are two conclusions to be drawn.
First, there is the implication of an English parliament. This is canvassed by some as a solution to the West Lothian question, in that at present Scottish MPs at Westminster can vote on English laws but not on Scottish laws, while English MPs at Westminster have no influence over Scottish laws. This is an imbalance in the constitution, which an English parliament is supposed to solve.
If only the MPs elected for English constituencies were permitted to vote on English laws, this imbalance would be corrected. It would, of course, create new imbalances. The introduction of two classes of MP would be one of them, but the imbalance between England and Scotland at UK level would be another. The problem of which the report complains – ignorance of devolution – would be replaced by another, more serious one.
Where the English MPs support a different policy from the Scottish Executive at European level, they would have not only ignorance but a specific mandate to override the Scottish view. In a federal system, if one state is so much bigger than the others, it tends to become dominant. The fact that England is something like four times as big as the rest of the UK put together means that English dominance is assured. In Germany, where the Länder have the competence on issues, even the largest Land is no more than 22 per cent of the total population: England is 80 per cent of the UK.
It is hard to see how the union between England and Scotland could survive if an English parliament were to be created. English regionalism would be different, but English nationalism is a threat.
The way to get round this threat – at least at European level – would be to reform the Council of Ministers itself. A simple solution offers itself.
The move to double majority voting in the Council contained in the constitutional treaty, whereby each proposal has to have the support of at least 55 per cent of the member states representing at least 65 per cent of the population of the EU if it is to pass, points the way. (55 and 65 are rather fussy numbers, by the way, but that’s what negotiations under the rule of unanimity sometimes produce. We’ll leave this for another time.)
What this amounts to is that the same votes are counted in two different ways. Each member state vote counts first at equal value and then secondly at population value. This is an expression of the idea that the Union is a union not of states but of states and citizens. Recognising the role of regions in the Council would give us two different sets of votes. The first vote would be cast by the member state as before – each worth the same – and 55 per cent support would be needed. The second vote would be cast by whichever level of government had the competence within the member state, and would be worth whatever the population represented by that level of government. Different countries might be represented in different ways, but that would be to reflect and respect their different national constitutions.
For example, on issues where the UK government has competence throughout the UK, its second vote would be worth 60 million. On issues which, in Scotland, were within the competence of the Scottish government, the UK second vote would be worth only 55 million because Scotland itself would have a second vote on behalf of the 5 million Scots.
This is a simple system that requires only a small change to the procedures (very often, ministers from the devolved governments attend Council meetings anyway) and would recognise the distinct responsibilities of different levels of government. It is simple, democratic and effective. From an English federalist, what else would you expect?