In 1977 Scottish Member of Parliament Tam Dalyell posed a question that is still a subject of controversy. Known as the ‘West Lothian Question’, it asks – Should Scottish Members of Parliament vote on issues concerning only the government of England?
This question is of wider relevance. It applies to any situation where there are two governments, with one whose domain of governance includes the other. For example: national government and local government.
The key to solving the West Lothian question – also known as English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) – is in finding a way to avoid conflict. This is also the route to improving democracy, and reversing the trend towards centralisation, and steadily more authoritarian and incompetent government.
Perhaps most importantly, if it is possible to find a principle or principles on which to build the relationship between two overlapping levels of government, then we can define the relationship between any two levels in a multi-level system.
This is sorely needed. The complex levels of United Kingdom governance – central, regional and local government – lack defining principles. There seem to be many variants with no agreed way of integrating different levels of government. It is a mess.
Take the example of the local government for the city of Liverpool. Having a local government takes us closer to the democratic ideal. We get better decisions, because the more numerous representatives of Liverpool in the Liverpool local government have a far better understanding of the issues that affect Liverpool. They can more closely represent the people of Liverpool.
But since there are two governments of Liverpool – the national government and the local government, both governing the same area – this gives opportunity for conflict between the two levels.
There certainly have been many conflicts of this nature, Liverpool being a relatively recent example. The solution to the conflict has usually been for the central government to override the local government. As a result Government has moved steadily further away from the local with increasing centralisation, and is perceived as increasingly authoritarian and incompetent.
Team games hold the solution to the West Lothian question
The myth that the West Lothian question is unsolvable is still being propagated, because, I suppose, to do that is convenient. Just as propagating the myth that government finance is the same as household finance is also a convenient myth.
But the solution to the West Lothian question stares everyone in the face every time they watch any team sport game.
There are many types of team games where there are sets of rules which apply to all the players taking part in a game, but yet teams act autonomously within those rules. Each team is sovereign within the framework of the rules, just as the theory is that nation states are sovereign within the framework of international law.
Even if they have never heard of a football league, a group of people in a village getting together on a Saturday to play a game of football have to agree to abide by a set of rules. Without that cooperation there can be no game. If they later want to play a team from the next village agreement on the rules has to be sought first. Yet within this agreed governance structure each team and its players have the freedom to play their game as they wish and take their own team decisions among themselves.
The rules of any game give rights to players, ‘freedom to’ act and communicate in certain ways, but also provide constraints curtailing freedom, giving players ‘freedom from’ being on the receiving end of other particular acts and communications. A team can on its own account set higher standards of behaviour, but not lower, and they can certainly decide their own strategies of play.
This relationship between the whole group rules (the framework which establishes the game) and the subgroup rules (the strategies that a team uses in taking part), and the way in which the two levels relate is an example of governance in the form wanted to solve the West Lothian question.
Of course the situation is actually more than just 22 players sitting down at the beginning of a game to decide the rules that should apply to their game. But in principle they could; then they could break into the two teams and decide how they will play their own game within the prior agreed rules. Going to the next village they might find that their different perspective brings to light things that were not covered in the initial set of rules so modifications are necessary. But if the game is to succeed the process of discussion and development must go on.
A framework of rights and constraints
The problem of government of a society is, of course, much more complex but the approach is similar. Just as for a team game, the whole group must come to agreement on a framework of rights and constraints applying to the people and organisations within the whole group population. An example of this is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a minimal set of rules which apply, or at least should apply, to all the people and organisations on our planet.
This framework set by the larger group applies to all, but does not prevent each subgroup that exists within the larger group developing its own distinctive culture and rules within the common framework. The only requirement on the smaller group is that they do live within the common framework set by and for the whole group population. The subgroups can add to the common framework expressing their own culture and understanding of their world, but not subtract from it.
Whole group government should only legislate for whole group
The whole group government is concerned only with this whole group framework and the issues associated with its establishment and maintenance. In normal circumstances there can be no concern with internal matters of any subgroup, just as is the case for the sovereignty of nation states within international law.
The key to understanding the relationship between two levels of government is that there must be restrictions on both the upper level and the lower level on what can be decided, what legislation can be put in place. There is inevitably a greater diversity of views across the larger group than across any subgroup. The area of agreement on a framework will of necessity be on a minimal set of agreed rights and constraints. The decisions of the whole group government must be severely restricted to those affecting only the whole group in constructing and maintaining this framework.
It follows that the United Kingdom Parliament cannot legislate for England, Scotland – or local authorities. It can only legislate for the United Kingdom as a whole. The current mess and the West Lothian Question itself arises because this not the case.
Sovereign decision making for small group governments
Issues concerning England only should be considered and decided by a body or bodies governing England: an English parliament or appropriate regional parliaments. Each of these must be sovereign alongside the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish parliaments within the common United Kingdom framework set by the United Kingdom parliament.
With this principle as the starting point in designing a governmental structure, the problems we face in that design are enormously simplified because the principle can be applied to distinguish the functions of any two levels in a multi-level governing system.
This requires a new definition of sovereignty
However, in adopting this principle we consign to the medieval history books the principle of sovereignty as it is currently defined and used. At present the government of a larger domain can interfere arbitrarily in any way at any time it deems necessary in the smaller domain. In the past sovereign kings and queens have not been renowned for their open, informed, fair and just decision making.
We must abandon the notion that there is a hierarchy in which the higher echelons can interfere at will in the lower echelons. Powerful and unconstrained actions in the upper echelons of a hierarchy certainly do not give rise to open, informed, fair and just governance, but more likely give rise to moral and financial corruption. It seems that those in the higher levels of a hierarchy often seek to perpetuate their own position and power rather than govern as representatives of the population.
What do we gain from defining the relationship between levels in this way? At one extreme of decision making it is clearly a fantasy that a king, a queen, a pope, a prime minister, or a chief executive officer can be infallible, and all-seeing. All human beings have a limited capacity to understand the enormous complexity of the world in which we live, whatever their role in it.
The subsidiarity principle – a decision should be made at the closest possible level to the people who will be affected by the decision
The reason to limit the ability of a body (e.g the Westminster parliament) governing a larger area from decision making about a smaller area within it (e.g. Liverpool) is that the collective knowledge within the larger body of the smaller area is limited.
A few Liverpool Members of Parliament living for a large part of their time at some distance can never act collectively as intelligently as a Local Government body of many more people in every day touch.
So in structuring any governing system, it is as essential to prevent interference from those who are not affected and do not understand, as it is to give access to those who are affected and do understand.
Narrowing the domain of decision making in this way, can focus the minds of those involved on a range of issues and roles which can be better encompassed by a human brain, so increasing both the effectiveness and efficiency of our governing structures. This at least maximises the possibility that in a representative democracy the people affected and the people who understand are both involved as far as possible in the decision making process.
This structuring will decentralise decision making, since unless it can be argued that a decision affects the whole group, it cannot be considered by the whole group.
Government structures and processes must change in tandem with social change
Most of us I would imagine wish to live in peace, without harming others and to be able to get on with our chosen lives. We need the communities in which we live to survive and be reasonably prosperous so that we can maintain our own livings. Those we elect to positions of government, our representatives, have firstly the task of living in and listening to the society they represent.
Societies change over time, and the stuff of government – constitution, laws, regulations – must change with it. Representatives have the task of using their knowledge and understanding to reflect the changes into amendments to the stuff of government.
This stuff of government allows others in the mechanisms of a state to ensure that we can live in peace, without being harmed by others and to help us maintain our communities. At root then, the task of our representatives is to ensure that the values of the society are reflected in the laws and regulations, that all have the possibility of a decent living. This is the process of managing a society.
Governing is an ongoing dynamic process because societies are not static, societies change through time. The laws enacted this year will not be fit for purpose in ten years. We will elect new councillors, new members of parliament and, hopefully, they will reflect the changes that have taken place in that time. Because of this I believe a process view is essential in developing the structure of government.
The process of democracy is decision making through inclusive discussion
So, to start – what is ‘democracy? The first example of ‘democracy’, and the origin of the word, is from ancient Greece. In the city state of Athens in ancient Greece all citizens took part in governmental decision making – what we now call direct democracy. In ancient Greece women and slaves were not citizens, and therefore not involved. But in the way we think of it now, in a direct democracy, everyone is a citizen. Every adult must be involved.
This seems an excellent place to start if we wish to achieve open, informed, fair and just decision making. It makes sense to bring to bear on decisions all the available knowledge and understanding of the issues involved, and also all the available knowledge of ramifications of any decision.
Democracy by this definition enables the process of discussion to take place, from which solutions to complex problems emerge. Each citizen has a unique personal set of experiences which give rise to their view of the world. On any issue there can be a variety of views, both informed and uninformed. And in order to reach a decision there must be time for discussion to enable a decision to emerge. Great care must be taken in this discussion to prevent any group – even a majority of citizens – curtailing the discussion to impose its will without that informed discussion.
The problem we have in making a comparison between this government of Athens and a modern nation state is that Athens was very small in comparison. There, every citizen could be involved in governmental decision-making. In a modern nation state with the population and size of the United Kingdom this is not feasible. In the modern situation it seems to be generally accepted that ‘representative democracy’ is the ideal to aim for.
Instead of every adult being involved we choose representatives, creating a body to take decisions on our behalf, standing for us. But then the question arises as to the ability and desirability of a small number of people to represent a large number in this way. A small number cannot possibly have knowledge and understanding equivalent to that contained in the larger population. There must be many issues that the United Kingdom’s present 650 parliamentary representatives have little or no knowledge of. Despite that, Parliament does take decisions in the governance of the United Kingdom. What is then at issue is the quality of those decisions.