Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Scrapping Barnett: Alice Thomson is Right & Wrong

Alice Thomson has an excellent article on today's Telegraph headlined HOW TO DEFUSE THE SCOTTISH QUESTION. You can read it HERE. She argues that the Barnett formula should be scrapped...

His (Gordon Brown's) solution lies in his own department and is suited to his tinkering temperament: scrap the Barnett formula that subsidises public spending north of the border by £1,400 per Scot every year. It must be obvious to the Chancellor that this handout is increasingly unacceptable to the English. It has allowed the Scottish Parliament to bring in free care for the elderly, free nursery places and free tuition at universities, as well as enabling them to build a £431 million parliament building. But as the Economist pointed out this month, representation with no taxation in Scotland hasn't worked. Under the headline "A Lament for Scotland", the magazine argues that devolution has not brought confidence. "Scotland has regressed into an inward-looking, chip-on-the-shoulder, slightly Anglophobic country," according to the report. "It has gained self-doubt, while clinging to an old dependency on England." The Barnett formula, in other words, has encouraged what Mr Brown says he wants to stop - the Scottish being treated as second-class citizens. It has prevented their parliament from being known for anything other than minor scandals and it hasn't encouraged the economy - over the past 10 years, it has grown by one per cent less than England. Mr Brown might lose some seats in Scotland to the SNP, but he would gain in the south for having the courage to address the issue. If he so desperately wants to be prime minister of a United Kingdom, this is the way to do it.

Alice is right to say the Barnett formula should be scrapped, but she is wrong if she thinks that will solve the problem. It will still mean that Scottish MPs can vote on issues which do not affect their own constituents. Others say the solution is to cut the number of Scottish MPs still further. The size of Scottish constituencies, with one or two exceptions, is now broadly in line with English ones, so I don't think that argument holds water.

The only solution to this question, and it's one I wish my own Party would embrace, is to allow a referendum in England on the creation of a Parliament for England. Having let the genie of devolution out of the bottle it is difficult to see how Labour could argue against such a referendum, although argue against it I am sure they will. Several senior LibDems, including Simon Hughes, have flirted with English devolution, but in the end they retreat back to their policy of regionalisation. The Conservatives have a policy of asking the Speaker to ensure only English MPs are allowed to vote on English only issues (which is re-heated HERE in the Telegraph today). It sounds good until you examine its practical implementation.

The Conservatives should now seriously think about how an English parliament would work. There's nothing anti-Scottish or anti-Welsh in arguing for an English Parliament. There's certainly nothing anti-Scottish or anti-Welsh in arguing that the English people should be given a referendum, just as the Scots and the Welsh had in the late 1990s. This is the debate we should be having - not one about tinkering with parliamentary procedure.

UPDATE 11.48am I have written a much longer version of this article which will appear on Comment is Free later today. Until then you can read it HERE.

UPDATE: 11.59pm The article is now on Comment is Free HERE and has provoked quite a furious debate!


Anonymous said...


Creating an English Parliament would actually strengthen Scotland and Wales. It would give them parity in the devolution settlement and signify that their institutions are more than just a sop to keep the nationalists at bay and indulge the Labour heartlands.

Which is exactly why the Labour establishment at Westminster is against discussing the English Question. The old left simply don't like to acknowledge that England exists or that power can be given away once obtained.

For a party that entered government in 1997 with some radical ideas on the constitution, a decade on they're looking tired and unimaginative.

Sabretache said...

There's a gaping hole in Alice Thompson's 'solution' of simply scrapping the Barnet formula. She points it out herself succinctly enough but then goes on to ignore it completely:

"The problem is Mr Brown's seat. The voters of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath may return Mr Brown to Parliament, but they won't be affected by much of what Mr Brown does if he becomes prime minister"

An English Parliament IS the only answer. It's also probably the only one with a hope of maintaining the Union but ironically the one which 'Unionists' seem to fear the most. Labour of course are frightened of it for their very own special electoral reasons. Still it was they who opened Pandora's box and watching their increasing discomfiture and squirming over the whole business is one of my major consolations these days.

For sure it 'aint going away and the Conservative Party would be well advised to treat it a little more seriously than their present embarrassed fudge cum hope-it-will-die-down-and-go-away approach suggests.

David said...

I support anything to stop the increasing whinging from my SP voting neighbours up here in Moray. However would it not just add yet another layer to government and somewhere for the likes of Prescott to plump his fat wobbly derriere for another ten years ?

Would it not be better to solve the West Lothian problem by saying English MPs only voting on English matters. I'd also CUT the number of MSPs at Holyrood there are far too many of them and the resources we wwaste for the likes of the Greens and SSP to pounce around disrupting Holyrood etc needs to be stopped.

Paul Linford said...

I really look forward to hearing what if anything the Tory frontbench plans to do about the Barnett Formula, Iain. It's a nettle they have signally failed to grasp so far.

For the past two elections, the Lib Dems have been the only party committed to scrapping this monstrous abuse of English taxpayers' money.

Anonymous said...

I'm deeply suspicious about an English parliament -- I'm sick and tired of bureaucratic white elephants, and I would rather the money continue to be squandered in the white elephants already in place in Scotland than for it to be wasted on a new bureuacratic endeavour on our back doorstep. I'll need a lot of convincing that it's remotely worth it, and I know I'm not alone in this view. Perhaps I'm being unfair and all this has been thought out and dealt with. I'd be interested in future blog entries and podcasts on the subject.

Man in a Shed said...

I personally wish our party would go further than a referendum and promote an English Parliament. The UK has been made unstable by Labour's constitutional vandalism and needs to see the return of symmetry and natural justice.
( The Celtic - aka Labour - ploy of regional government for England has been seen for what it is, a cynical ploy to keep as many socialist fiefdoms as possible, whilst ceding a minimum of power to other parties and keeping England down. )
Remember the Conservative party received more votes in England than any other party – yet the English are ruled by Celtic socialists.

Croydonian said...

I'd be happy with an English parliament, but this would need to be part of a wholesale constitutional settlement, with my preference being for a four member federation with equivalent powers for all. Meanwhile, I think there would be a good argument for an English parliament to be somewhere other than London.

Anonymous said...

The more time I spend in England, the more that I'm convinced that the answer to the West Lothian Question is English devolution. After the bloody nose the Labour govt got after the North East referendum are you surprised the Tories aren't that keen on it?
I know it's not quite the same thing, but at the moment I'm not sure the campaign for an English Parliament has really captured the public mood in the same that devolution had in Scotland and Wales.

Anonymous said...

An English Parliament and a federal union is the only logical way out of the constitutional mess Mr Blair and his dimwitted accolytes have created for us.

But without some radical leadership the Westminster parliament will never permit it. The socialists cannot countenence loosing long term control of 75% of the country to what would be a conservative dominated assembly. And none of the Westminster bench warmers can contemplate the prospect of loosing control over the minutae of English people's lives. For that is what devolution means.

The English Parliament (and those of Scotland, Wales and Ulster)would have responsibility for rates and schools etc. Leaving less for the Westminster lot to worry about and that scares the pants off the MP's. For if they have less to worry about, people might start asking why should there be so many of them and why should we pay them so much?

Turkeys don't vote for Christmas and MP's won't vote for something that might put their comfortable seats on the gravy train at risk.


Anonymous said...

Why is it that Scotland and wales need an Assembly but England needs lots of Assemblies ?

Why not have just one in England ?

The question then is whether to kick Scotland out of the United Kingdom next year on the 300th Anniversary of The Act of Union; or simply to make The House of Commons English with The House Of Lords as The Assembly of The Rehions as in The US and Germany.

neil craig said...

I think the Barnett formula is the problem rather than the democratic deficit. In favour of Barnett I would point out that, at the current oil price, oil from Scotland is probably at least matching Barnett, nonetheless in the long term it is unsustainable.

By comparison I think the west Lothian thing is mainly of interest to Westminster Tories who see it as a route to power, rather than a popular mass movement. Even the poll which showed 55% against a Scottish PM was somewhat fiddled - had they asked if "any Scottish MP should be excluded from ever, in future, being PM of the UK" the result would have been overwhelming.

I would prefer regional assemblies to one English one but as a Scot I accept I am not entitled to a vote & that currently their is little enthusiasm for this. The advantage of federalism is that it provides separate environments for political experiments. For example if Scotland were to lower corporation tax (current SNP policy) & improve growth there would be strong evidence to persuade other regions. A unitary state doesn't have that option. To that extent an English state doesn't provide such diversity.

£ suggestions for an English state-
1) It must work by PR (since the Tories got a whole 50,000 more votes is England than Labour, & fewer seats this shouldn't be a problem) as the other assemblies do.
2)How about putting it in Birmingham, the geographical centre of England since many northeners also feel dissocited from Westminster.
3) Put in a constitutional method whereby particular regions could, if they so decide, choose their own regional assembly instead.

Little Black Sambo said...

Rick is right. We already have an English parliament; why should we pay for a mickey-mouse one? Scotch (& Welsh) participation should simply be reduced at Westminster

Anonymous said...

The other problem, Iain, is that for an English Parliament to work and not be seen as the Home Counties writ large or an overwhelmingly Conservative institution (which would create instant opposition from all other parties, regions and the non-aligned) is that it would have to be elected by PR and be a modern institution, not some quaint add-on. Are you prepared for this? If not then forget it.

There will also be the usual rubbish about the 'Balkanisation' of the UK to contend with too. It's worth working out your responses here if you want to push for this as there will be those in the Tory Party for whom this is a step too far (diminuntion of the Union Parliament etc etc).

Anonymous said...

I think I love Iain Dale.

Iain Dale for Prime Minister!!!!!

Anonymous said...

You can't kick one member out of the UK it isn't possible. The president set worldwide is that a Nation can only vote itself out. England could leave the UK but it isn't actually in England's interest to do that. Defence of England was the reason England joined the Union and it hasn't gone away. Manning land borders and finding somewhere for nuclear subs, replacing the RAF bases in Scotland and Wales would cost a fortune. Not to mention a potential civil war in Northern Ireland. The UK resource-wise grew as one country and we would struggle for water in England as Wales gives us water which I'm sure would be sold to us at a premium. Scotland exports power to us. Each of the countries of the UK is highly dependent on the others. I hope the UK can stick together but I fear the worst.

Anonymous said...

Well in the North we don't want a regional assembly but we are stuck with an unelected one costing £2 million annually to occupy friends of Prescott.

Birmingham is nearer London than it is to this author. what has Birmingham got in common with us ? Nothing they speak through their noses........

The simplest solution is to kiss Scotland goodbye and let them fund themselves........

Let's just return to the English Parliament - it was after all the only part of these islands to actually have a Parliament going way back. It is time we liberated ourselves from these liabilities

Anonymous said...

After the bloody nose the Labour govt got after the North East referendum are you surprised the Tories aren't that keen on it?

They lost because the Tories kept out of it.

We have Regional Assembles - they exist - the referendum was merely to legitimise them with some rigged election. They still exist - in fact they cannot be dissolved by the elected members - the Government controls them directly.

They are like Hitler's Gau-Leiter implementing national policy at regional level.

Anonymous said...

Please can someone tell me what the benefit is in retaining the UK identity ? Because I cannot see one. For me it's simple; stuff all this devolution rubbish and go the whole hog. We are four different countries. Let's start living that way.

Dave said...

I grow increasingly tired of explaining this - but here goes for one more time.

The Barnett formula is a mechanism for reducing the relative advantage enjoyed by Scotland in terms of comparable public spending with England. A similar arrangement applies in relation to Wales and Northern Ireland. The formula operates by allocating to Scotland a proportion of comparable public spending increases on comparable English programmes, that proportion being set at a level which is below Scotland's share in population terms. Accordingly, over time, the Barnett formula will reduce the gap between comparable spending per head in Scotland and England.

Now it is entirely possible to argue that the Barnett formula is not working quickly enough, in which case it may need to be amended. But simply abandoning the Barnett formula will not achieve anything in itself.

Those who argue for a more radical solution to the problem of greater comparable spending in Scotland need to address the much more difficult issue of comparable spending needs. For example, is it equitable to base comparable spending on a simple per head calculation? Scotland is a less heavily populated country than England, so for example it 'needs' to spend more on roads and transport per head to deliver comparable outcomes in terms of public service. Similarly, for historical reasons, Scotland is generally recognised to have more severe health problems than south of the border, thus leading to a need for greater health spending per head. In these circumstances how do we devise a system which is fair to both countries? It is far from easy. In the 1970s, when the Barnett formula was first introduced, they ducked the issue and settled for the formula, which would gradually move the system in what was perceived to be the right direction.

I don't have the answers to the West Lothian Question (or the English question as some of us know it) but I don't think scrapping the Barnett formula is going to help.

Anonymous said...

anonymous, what has Scotland got to export ? If it needs revenue it can export electricity and lease bases. after all the US leases Guantanamo from Cuba and had bases at Holy Loch.

We used to lease bases at Simonstown in South Africa.

We can very easily give Scotland independence - just repeal the Act of Union 1707 - it would be great to do so in 2007. The 1801 Act of Union with Ireland is no longer in force, and the 1947 Independence of India Act gave India independence.

There is nothing easier than giving Scotland independence - it is far easier than any other part of the United Kingdom

Anonymous said...

I don't care the whys and wherefores. All I know is that England is being used as a sacrificial lamb for Scottish political ambitions.

I want democracy returned to my country NOW.

The English didn't start this, so complaining about us wanting our own Parliament equal to Scotland's, is suggesting that the implications of Scotland getting its own Parliament were not really considered - Is that really true? Are our politicians really that ignorant and stupid?

Why aren't these Conservatives that support an English Parliament, setting up an English Conservative Party? They already have a Scottish and Welsh one, so as a matter of courtesy, we English should also have our own.

Anonymous said...

The whole devolution thing has caused seriously illogical results.

As I write in a letter published in today's Standard "as things currently stand, the next [Met Police] Commissioner will be appointed by a Scottish MP with no accountability to the London electorate and whose constituents won't be affected by the decision."

It seems to me that the Tory idea of asking the Common's Speaker to rule if an issue is 'English only' is the sanest and most cost efficient solution.

Any Scots MPs feeling 'second class' as a result can always stand in their own Parliament instead.

wonkotsane said...

"Others say the solution is to cut the number of Scottish MPs still further. The size of Scottish constituencies, with one or two exceptions, is now broadly in line with English ones, so I don't think that argument holds water."

Iain, you are forgetting that Westminster now has very little to do with North Britain so why do they still need the same level of representation as they did pre-devolution?

Scrapping the Barnett Formula is only part of the answer to the WLQ. Give North Britain full fiscal economy along with Wales and Northern Ireland but only after the maritime border between England and North Britain has been moved back to where it used to be and English North Sea oil and gas is put back into English waters again. The North Britons harp on about "their" oil when, in fact, before the maritime border was moved so that it no longer follows international convention, a large proportion of North Sea oil and gas was in English waters.

So, move the maritime border back to its rightful place, give England a parliament with at least the same powers as the North British Parliament and let each constituent nation spend the tax it raises internally. Lets see how many of our North British friends want independence when they realise it won't be the English paying for it in perpetuity.

JohnJo said...

Good post Iain and you are spot on that a fiscal "fix" does nothing to address the WLQ. At least Alice has a good go at explaining that this issue is based upon mandate rather than nationality which is something that we should all make crystal clear. A Scot. representing an English seat is perfectly entitled to meddle in England's affairs.

Now, where did you put that Witanagemot Club blogroll Iain?

Sabretache said...

mh: "It seems to me that the Tory idea of asking the Common's Speaker to rule if an issue is 'English only' is the sanest and most cost efficient solution."

Ask Gorbals Mick to rule something is 'English only' when his own party's governing program and credibility might be at stake? You must be joking. (I know I know, he's supposed to be above that sort of thing but I doubt pigs will ever fly either) - could see it producing some serious hilarity though.

God I'm beginning to really enjoy this whole devolution fiasco. It's high time the whole thing blew up in their faces and it looks like that's exactly what is going to happen.

Anonymous said...

As a Welsh nationalists I'm all in favour of England regaining her sovereignty as she is one of Europe's oldest nation-states. As British nationalists, Labour just want to keep the Union because the union serves their party.

Britain's dying. It's only the BNP, Labour and the CRE who have any affection for the Union Jack any longer.

Either a federal UK or independence all-round. It's not the Balkanisation of Britain as the Brit nats will predictably say but the Scaninavianisation of Britain - three sovereign countries cooperating in harmony and parity.

Huw, Wales

Anonymous said...

All you enthusiasts for an English parliament should come and spend some time up here observing the Scottish parliament. Its an embarrasment and it demeans Scotland. Yes, abolish Barnett but you will soon find that the cash saved will be gobbled up by the cost of the new English Parliament. Stop Scottish MPs voting on English matters but create a new Parliament for A List rejects and you will live to regret it>

Paul Walter said...

I take back what I said yesterday about your Little Ben flag dropping off post. This posting is so weighty I am going to have to save it up to read it during a quiet moment...........probably in about 2017, God willing.

Anonymous said...

If we're talking English parliament, alongside a Scottish one, a Welsh one and an Ulster/Norther Irish one, then that would be the time do actually discuss a proper federal framework for the UK.

The Scottish situation is currently unique in that it has an exclusive jurisdiction on various domestic matters that most other federal systems, such as the USA, don't. IN most federal systems, the federal government can pass laws that supercede "local" or state laws and it is mandated that all judges apply federal law over state law should a conflict emerge.

So if we want an English parliament, and I agree wholeheartedly with it, we'll want a clear map of the powers of all assemblies in relation to the central, federal government.

The one problem I could see with that is that knowing LAbour's love of legislation, even in a federal framework such as the one I describe, the central government would just keep passing federal laws that supercede state laws, to the point of rendering all assemblies simply expensive redundant bodies, that can only discuss stirring arguments as passing a cat licence bill or the colour of local signposts.

Unless of course, some exclusive competences are clearly reserved to local governments...As you can see, constitutional engineering is tricky.

But, yeah, Scottish Anglo-phobia is becoming almost parodistic and forcing the Scots to pay for themselves is probably the way to go.

Anonymous said...

The solution is simple

Get the Scottish, Welsh and Irish out of the House of Commons, to make it into an English Parlaiment.

Make the House of Lords into an elected British Senate to deal with defence and foreign affairs.

Steve Uncles - English Democrats

Welsh Spin said...

hw is spot on i'm afraid. Barnett is flawed, but if it is scrapped then some alternative formula will have to be found for allocating funding to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (whether run by elected Assemblys/Parliaments or a UK Secretary of State). It may be the case that a 'needs based' formula would deliver slightly more money for Wales and Northern Ireland and slightly less for Scortland, but that is by no means clear since no robust evidence based assessment for spending need presently exists.

I suspect a referendum on establishing an English Parliament may well happen sometime over the next decade - but I also suspect that the solid yeomanry of England may well say no thanks!

Welsh Spin said...

hw is spot on i'm afraid. Barnett is flawed, but if it is scrapped then some alternative formula will have to be found for allocating funding to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (whether run by elected Assemblys/Parliaments or a UK Secretary of State). It may be the case that a 'needs based' formula would deliver slightly more money for Wales and Northern Ireland and slightly less for Scortland, but that is by no means clear since no robust evidence based assessment for spending need presently exists.

I suspect a referendum on establishing an English Parliament may well happen sometime over the next decade - but I also suspect that the solid yeomanry of England may well say no thanks!

Anonymous said...

As a Scot, it's none of your business anyway.
No one asked me if your lot should have their own Parliament and continue treating the English like shi*

As for Wales - yes, they hate the English, but let's be fair (we are English, after all), Wales didn't exactly get the best deal, either.

Only Scotland got the preferential treatment and preferential funding.

A neighbour brought me round the Daily Mail today. Pages 20 and 21 are very interesting indeed. I recommend all English residents read it.

Democracy - It's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming......

Anonymous said...

the new English Parliament.

Sorry - we have one - it is the one we had before 1707.

Brown wants a special coin minted next year so we can remember how Scotland came to usurp our English Parliament.

An ideal time to discuss an english Referendum followed by Repeal of the Act of Union 1707.

Gareth said...

Get rid of the Barnett Formula and there is no justifiable reason left for Scots voting on English law.

Anonymous said...

Why persist with the UK? The scots loathe the english however much we subsidize them. In fact they loathe us more and more as we pay for their welfare addiction.

We do not need more government but less so why have an extra english parliament?

Give the scots 2 choices: independence + pay your own way or rule from westminster with no barnett. They are bound to go for the former & can then sod off and enjoy socialist poverty, fried mars bars and supporting germany against england in the world cup.

Meanwhile, england can cut her taxes + also the indirect subsidies of placing large government departments in scotland to create non-jobs. Those departments can be relocated to the english North, cutting our taxes still further. I am sick of being ruled by and subsidizing the whingeing parasites in scotland and the sooner they bugger off and leave us alone in england the better.

The welsh & ulster should be offered the same choice just to show we treat all subsidy junkies the same but (sadly) they are too smart to go for independence.

Anonymous said...

Good article in the Graun, Iain. The boys seem to be having plenty of fun refighting Bannockburn/Colludden in the comments without my help, so with your permission I'll chip my tu'penny worth in here.

Blair offered the Celtic Cousins "devolution" in a blatent piece of vote purchasing back in the 90's. Having promised it, and realising that without the votes of the Celtic Block he'd be in deep poo, he then had to give them something.

Sadly, what he gave them was not true devolution. Oh, the Scots Welsh and Ulstermen have their toy parliaments (with all the gravy trains that seem to be part of the deal nowadays). And they have a certain amount of say in how some things get done within their feifdoms.

But there has been no clear division of responsibilities, allowing Westminster to interfer at will. Nor has there been a parallel devolution of the revenue raising function. The Jocks, Taffs and Paddies can play grown up but they still have to run to Uncle Gordon everytime they want to spend any money. As for the poor Wallies in England they don't even get the chance to pretend to be grownups.

Working on the assumption that it is now impossible to go backwards, we need to find a way out of the constitutional cock up that Tone Nice-But-Dim and Gorgeous Gordon have created.

My personal preference, as stated before is for a federal state. Each Home Nation would have its own parliament with the power to administer all domestic matters not revolved (is that the word?) back to Westminster. Each parliament would also have the responsibility for raising the required revenue for those functions. The size, makeup and electoral method used by each parliament would be a matter of later discussion.

The Westminster parliament should be much reduced in size and only take responsibility for those matters specifically allocated to it by the Home Nations (defence, foreign policy and management of the currency).

Such a system would produce a clearly balanced state with clearly defined powers and responsibilities. Unfortunately that is exactly why I suspect the UK will never acheive anything near it. And if it did I wouldn't trust the politicians in Westminster or the devolved parliaments not to screw it up within five years.


wonkotsane said...

"IN most federal systems, the federal government can pass laws that supercede "local" or state laws and it is mandated that all judges apply federal law over state law should a conflict emerge."

Which is also the case here in relation to Scottish and Welsh devolution. The UK government has the right to legislate on devolved issue and laws passed by the UK parliament take primacy. I recently asked the Home Office why John McReid wasn't forcing Scottish police forces to merge when they are smaller than most English forces and the Home OFfice says that small police forces put us at risk of terrorism. They said that the Home Secretary couldn't because the Scottish Executive controls Scottish police. I read out the relevant line of the Scotland Act that says the UK government can legislate on devolved issues and they refused to discuss it.

The UK government can legislate on devolved issues in Scotland, they just choose not to.

neil craig said...

The Scots do not "loathe" the English any more than Oxford loathes Cambridge on boat race day. Certainly not to the extent every Afghan, Albanian or Georgian village hates the village next door.

We are currently working our way through some long overdue constitutional reforms which may end up with some form of federation or of closely cooperating "sovereign" states (I hope the former) but we have a joint history & as Iain & David Cameron prove a lot of joint blood & if we can't work through essentially petty differences (the Barnett disputes are well under 1% of GNP & Scots votes are roughly 3% to the left of English) then the human race better hand over to the next team