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Westminster Reflections:

A hung parliament? Asks Bernard Jenkin MP

At the time of writing, the 7 May polling day is still more than two weeks away.  At this stage, neither of the two main political parties have gained traction and the polls have consistently suggested the result of the election will be another stalemate, resulting in a hung parliament of one sort or another.  This is complicated by the Scottish factor: the rise of the Scottish National Party is forecast to make dramatic gains of up to 50 seats and may well hold the balance of power in the new Parliament.  This itself has become an issue in the general election, and for good reason.

Historically, there is a parallel with the events in Parliament that preceded Irish secession.  During the late nineteenth century, Parliament was increasingly held to ransom by a pack of Irish nationalist MPs, led by the remarkable and controversial Irish MP Charles Stewart Parnell. He was first elected an MP in 1875 and remained so until he died in 1891.  Until the 1880s, there had been remarkably few written procedures (standing orders) in the House of Commons, because MPs generally recognised the desirability of mutual cooperation in order to allow the House of Commons to get through its business.  Parnell and his supporters would have none of that.

The 1880 general election was called and won by Gladstone with an overall majority of 52, in a House of 652 seats.  The Conservatives had 237 and the Irish Home Rulers totalled 63.  Though the Parnellites represented no more than 23 MPs – by no means even a majority of the Irish faction – they deliberately obstructed Commons business by filibustering, forcing Gladstone to introduce the first procedures to allow a majority of MPs to curtail discussion and to force votes.  This contained the effects of Irish nationalism in the Commons until there was a hung Parliament following the February 1910 general election, in which the Irish nationalists held the balance of power.  The Conservative and Liberal parties held 272 and 274 seats respectively while Irish factions held 71 seats.  This was followed by a second general election, which delivered virtually the same outcome.  Though the constitutional crisis at this time was centred on the role and powers of the House of Lords, this allowed the Irish to arbitrage between the government and opposition in order to obtain whatever they wanted.

As we look at the possibility of a similar stalemate in the House of Commons in 2015 – with Conservatives and Labour obtaining similar numbers of seats, and the Scottish Nationalists holding a significant number of the minority seats – we are poring over our history to see what we can learn from 100 years ago.  There are, however, two significant differences with that period.

Unlike Ireland in 1910, Scotland already has its own parliament, as well as a significant delegated legislative and tax-raising powers.  The architects of Scottish devolution failed to resolve the so-called ‘West Lothian Question,’ so a fundamental unfairness now exists at the heart of the UK constitution.  Scottish MPs at Westminster can continue to vote on issues affecting non-Scottish constituencies, even though the Commons has no power to vote the equivalent matters in their own Scottish constituencies, since they are devolved to the Scottish Parliament.  Only the Conservatives are seeking to address this anomaly through new procedures in the House of Commons known as ‘English Votes for English Laws.’

The Scottish Nationalists, whose objective remains independence, is to exploit what amounts to Scotland’s double representation in a hung UK Parliament.  This would be not just to extract what they want from any government, but to foment the maximum discord between Scotland and the rest of the UK in order to advance support in England for Scottish independence.  This not only includes vexed questions of spending and taxation in Scotland (which already gets a disproportionate share of UK resources) but their intention to obstruct the decision to order the replacement Trident submarines necessary to sustain the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. Quite apart from the economic issues at stake in this election, the result could therefore herald a constitutional and existential crisis for the future of the United Kingdom.

Also unlike 1910, the Prime Minister of the day has no easy recourse to a second general election to resolve a crisis, as Harold Wilson did in 1974.  The Fixed Term Parliaments Act was introduced by the coalition and stipulates one general election every five years.  There are many on all sides who now rue the day that this act was passed (with remarkably little discussion or opposition at the time, though I and a few others voted against it.)  The SNP leader is citing this act to underline how its position would be strengthened by this act.

But here are some words of comfort!  Firstly, while a hung parliament would create some uncertainty about our nuclear defence, both Labour and the Conservatives are committed to sustaining continuous at sea deterrence, and it is hard to conceive a House of Commons which does not have a large majority in favour of ordering the new submarines.  Second, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act contains provisions for an early election, and could even be repealed.  Third, it is worth remembering that, in our voting system, hung parliaments are rare, and it is not as inevitable as all the polls and pundits seem to think.  Electoral Calculus still gives only a 50 per cent chance of a hung parliament.


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