The 1800 Act of Union abolished the Irish Parliament and Ireland sent its elected representatives to sit in the Westminster Parliament as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Home Rule League (created in 1873) took 63 Irish seats in the 1880 general election and 85 of 103 Irish seats in the 1885 election. This persuaded Gladstone to introduce a Home Rule Bill in 1886 which was rejected by the House of Commons. A second Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1893, this time rejected by the House of Lords. After the Parliament Act (1911) severely reduced the powers of the Lords , the third Home Rule Bill received the Royal Assent, as “The Government of Ireland Act” in 1914. This never came into effect because of the outbreak of the First World War.
The central objective of the Home Rule Bill was to create a self-governing Ireland within a continuing British state. Instead, the Easter Rising in 1916 and its aftermath finally resulted, not in a reformed Union, but in the creation of an independent Irish Free State in the south, with six counties of Ulster remaining in the Union. This outcome was not sought before the First World War by the Home Rule League or the Westminster Parliament.
In the Scottish Referendum only a binary choice was offered, this excluding any Home Rule option. The referendum showed a majority of voters believed there was value in a continuing Union and that it could persist into the future. However, in its aftermath the SNP has emerged much stronger. There appears to be a continued demand amongst the electorate for further powers for the Scottish Parliament going beyond those proposed by the Smith Commission. Within the existing framework Lord Smith has gone as far as he could, given the requirement to obtain all party support for the implementation of the Commission’s proposals.
The Prime Minister’s declaration of English votes for English laws (EVEL) is entirely understandable, but his proposed method of achieving it is seriously flawed. EVEL seems likely to exacerbate tensions in the Westminster Parliament with continuing argument as to which matters are “English” matters and which should be dealt with by all members. And the UK, whose former Empire has given rise to a number of federal governments (including the United States, Australia, Canada and India), should recognise that what is sauce for the goose is often sauce for the gander.
Montesquieu, the French philosopher, was described by Keynes as “the real French equivalent of Adam Smith.” Like Smith, he was suspicious of strong, centralised government. He believed, writing in 1746, that the British system of administrative government – the executive, the legislative and the judiciary – would provide appropriate checks and balances so that no one branch of government would be stronger than any other. Over time, the checks on the executive have become much weaker. The development of Cabinet government buttressed by a large number of ministerial posts, a whipping system which puts a strong premium on party loyalty and first-past-the-post voting, sometimes implies that the chief principle of our unwritten constitution is that each House of Commons can undo any law enacted by a previous parliament!
A federal union could be modelled on the US which put into practice what Montesquieu preached – checks and balances which curb the powers of any single branch of government. This requires a written constitution which would entrench the powers of the English and Scottish Parliaments and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. There would be agreed rules on fiscal behaviour, whose serious breach could cause difficulties for all parties in the reformed Union. The Scottish Parliament would have to accept a population share of the UK fiscal debt and if the English Parliament should decide on a continuation of total debt reduction, Scottish fiscal policy would need to be reasonably congruent with that determined for England. The federal parliament could be responsible for a range of powers similar to those proposed in the third Irish Home Rule Bill. This has the merit of dispensing with the Lords which is long past its sell by date.
The Scottish Parliament decided for Union in 1707 because the collapse of the Darien Scheme demonstrated that Scotland did not have the resources to establish and maintain overseas territories. After a rocky start, the Union gave access to a rapidly expanding Empire and English markets (still the main buyer of Scottish goods and services). As I observed in my August blog, Adam Smith believed that the division of labour and the economic benefits thereof, were more evident the wider the markets that could be accessed. The pace of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions would probably have been slower outside the Union. Inside the Union, Scotland was part of the “workshop of the world” and remained a strong part of that workshop until the recession which followed the First World War.
The present political environment is very different. The Empire is no more and Britain’s economic and political links with Europe are much stronger. Tariff and non-tariff barriers to international trade have been significantly reduced, much of the tyranny of distance has been reduced by technical advance (most recently the internet) and world trade has expanded more rapidly than world income. In war God is said to be on the side of the big battalions, but in economics, and especially in Western Europe, it is the smaller nations who generally enjoy higher real incomes.
It has been said that the Westminster Parliament never put the Home Rule option directly to the Irish people because it feared they would vote for it. Much the same can be said of the Scottish Referendum. Over time the Scottish Parliament has increasingly become the focus of political debate in Scotland. The political dominance of the SNP in Scotland will not inevitably lead to independence, but it may do unless the Conservative Party can up its game. It is the only political party which seems capable of reaching a Home Rule settlement with the regional parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I will return to this in 2016 but the next two blogs will deal with the “Great Recession” and, then, the subsequent recovery.