There’s one thing that Westminster is very good at – you might even say that in this respect the UK really is world-beating. It’s just a shame then that what Westminster is world beating at is in finding ways to appear to be dealing with an issue while not actually changing anything at all. This is how the UK has managed to make it into the 21st century with a parliament with an essentially unreformed second chamber. Membership of the House of Lords is no longer exclusively for members of the aristocracy who inherited their seats and or bishops of the Church of England, but CofE bishops still have a seat in the Lords as do 92 hereditary peers.
There’s no pretence of democratic accountability for the 720 members of the Lords. The vast majority are life peers who were appointed by the Prime Minister. It is a system which reeks of blatant and naked patronage and it ensures that politicians who have been rejected by the voters can continue to make laws and influence public policy. Tony Blair responded to public demands to reform the unelected House of Lords by abolishing the right of most hereditary peers to sit in the Lords and to replace them with peers appointed due to the patronage of the Prime Minister. He thus did nothing to make the Lords more democratic or accountable, and increased the power of his own office while appearing to respond to calls for reform of an unaccountable and undemocratic second chamber.
We have seen similar tricks in Scotland, widespread demand in Scotland in the 1980s for a Scottish Parliament and assertions of the sovereignty of the people of Scotland were met with “devolution”, a formulation designed to ensure that sovereign power remained with the Westminster Parliament – as the phrase used by Labour politicians at the time to signify that in the view of the Westminster Parliament, it was merely permitting the new Scottish Parliament to administer powers on Westminster’s behalf.
Although a considerable part of the drive for a Scottish Parliament in the Thatcher/Major era came from a desire in Scotland to ensure that Scotland was protected from the policies of Westminster Conservative governments that Scotland didn’t vote for, the limitations of devolution have become painfully apparent since the Brexit vote in 2016.
Despite the fact that one of the key promises of the Better Together campaign in 2014 was that the powers of Holyrood would be protected and that no Westminster government would ever make changes to the devolution settlement without the express consent of the Scottish Parliament, this was hedged about with the weasel word “normally”, giving Conservative Governments a loophole to exploit, and which they have exploited in full, allowing them to claim that they had to make changes unilaterally to the devolution settlement due to the “exceptional” circumstances of Brexit, a Brexit which Scotland rejected at the 2016 referendum and which it has continued to reject at every election since by voting for political parties which oppose it.
We now see that devolution cannot protect Scotland from the malignant effects of Conservative governments which Scotland didn’t vote for – that was the problem that a Scottish Parliament was supposed to solve. Westminster made sure it couldn’t. To add insult to injury this Conservative Government is now using the Brexit that Scotland didn’t vote for either in order to traduce and by-pass the Scottish Parliament. They even have the unmitigated gall to insist that in doing so they are “augmenting devolution” which is a bit like chopping someone’s legs off at the knees and then saying that you have augmented their mobility because now they can use a wheelchair.
The only thing that prevents the Conservatives from embarking on an all-out destruction of the devolution settlement is the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum. They know that neutering Holyrood and openly attacking the devolution settlement would put rocket boosters under the case for independence. But make no mistake, if Scotland is foolish enough to vote No again in that second referendum, that is exactly what the Conservatives will do. Devolution has no future with a Westminster which will stop at nothing in order to see off any challenge to its power and the way it has always done things.
The latest example of Westminster making a big show of purporting to respond to a political problem but in reality not doing anything of substance which will actually effect the needed changes that the measure is supposed to bring about is Boris Johnson’s response to the on-going scandal about the second jobs of Conservative MPs and their often extremely lucrative outside interests.
The scandal broke because of Johnson’s decision to abolish independent scrutiny of MPs’ activities and replace it with a sham committee with a built in Tory majority in the wake of the decision to suspend Conservative MP Owen Paterson after he had been found to engage in inappropriate lobbying on behalf of companies he was employed by. The scandal soon widened to cover the issue of second jobs for MPs,Conservative MP Geoffrey Cox earns hundreds of thousands a year working for a legal firm. 90 out of 360 Conservative MPs have second jobs compared with five of Labour’s 199 MPs and two each from the SNP and the Lib Dems.
Earlier this week Johnson announced a plan which would supposedly tighten the rules on the outside jobs and financial interests of MPs. On Wednesday MPs voted 297 to nil to back Downing Street plans to restrict outside work to “reasonable limits” and prohibit parliamentary advice or consultancy. Johnson was hoping that this would draw a line under the affair. However an analysis of the register of MPs’ interests soon found that fewer than ten MPs would be affected by the rule change.
According to the Guardian newspaper, the proposed prohibition on MPs being parliamentary advisers appears to be so narrowly worded that only two Tories out of the 48 Conservative MPs with consultancy jobs fitted the description and would be affected by the new ban.
The phrase plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the more it changes the more it remains the same, looks as though it was invented for Westminster. The only way Scotland will ever see any real and meaningful change is with independence.
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