Yesterday was the feast day of St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. I sincerely hope that all people in Scotland had an enjoyable Latha Naomh Anndra and that the whisky burn at the back of the throat has disappeared by this evening. I find that ibuprofen, rather than paracetamol, tends to be better at easing the consequences of that particular tipple.
Something else than the Scottish fire-water gave me a headache last night - something that no over-the-counter painkiller can subdue. What was it? Scottish MPs. Why? Their insistent bleating about Government reforms to higher education that have nothing to do with them.
A devolved matter, the Scottish Parliament voted in 2000 to abolish tuition fees for all Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and European Union students - just about everyone apart from English students. That was their choice to do so and residents of Scotland have to make do with budget restraints in other areas.
The upcoming reforms to higher education in England and Wales do not, therefore, concern the constituents of the honourable Members from North Britain. Why, then, did a series of them bob up and down in the House of Commons last night in search of a say in the Opposition debate on higher education? And to the loss of other honourable Members whose constituents will actually be affected by the reforms?
|Pamela Nash MP, 'Baby of the House'|
Ian Murray (Lab, Edinburgh South) failed in his efforts to get the Secretary of State, Vince Cable, to give way, but it was not long afterwards that Fiona O'Donnell (Lab, East Lothian) was up on her feet to whinge about Lib-Dem members putting out leaflets in the snow. Then Pamela Nash (Lab, Airdrie & Shotts) interrupted Iain Stewart (C, Milton Keynes South) with the claim that the Government is introducing its reforms based on ideology. I don't think that the Baby of the House (Ms Nash is 26) is so young that she cannot recall that the Government is acting on the advice of an independent report commissioned by the preivous Labour Government. Moreover, as a recent politics graduate of the University of Glasgow, she has (unlike me and my peers from English universities) never had to pay tuition fees, but was happy to work as Lord (John) Reid's researcher when he was a long-serving member of the Labour Government that increased fees twice against manifesto promises.
Some moments later, Peter Wishart (SNP, Perth & North Perthshire) spat out a party political broadcast on behalf of his virtuous, caring and competent party colleagues prior to making the bewildering claim that, "these pernicious fees will have a significant impact on Scottish higher education...[and] disastrous consequences for our universities." What are these consequences?
"English universities will be awash with tuition fees [so] we will be at a competitive disadvantage. The fact that we will not have the same development and resources to provide research facilities to attract international students could have disastrous consequences."
My retort is too obvious to mention (guesses as to my solution to Mr Wishart's dilemma on the back of a postcard).
Anas Sarwar (Lab, Glasgow Central) followed less than ten minutes later. To his credit, he scathingly referred to the above "rather delusional performance from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire" and decided to focus on the more debatable necessity of the 80 per cent cuts to teaching grants. Yet Mr Sarwar referred to the "thousands of students, school pupils, teaching staff and parents" that the reforms will affect and "our young people". Not your young people, sir, for they remain un-affected. Like your father's former Glasgow constituent, the aforementioned Pamela Nash MP, they don't have to pay tuition fees at all.
The West Lothian Question is not a constitutional quirk that has ever excited me. 'English votes for English laws', an 'English Parliament', or other apparent solutions, pose far too great a threat to the future solidarity and existence of the Union. Like the inherent electoral bias of constituency size enjoyed by the Labour Party, I've always seen the West Lothian issue as a Question not worth an Answer.
Yet on this issue of tuition fees, for historical reasons, I make an exception. For it was the voting support of Scottish MPs in January 2004 that enabled the Tony Blair to pass the Higher Education Bill by the slender margin of 316-311, and thus introduce university top-up fees of £3,000. Labour's Scottish MPs were described at the time as "reprehensible", "constitutionally cavalier" and "Tony's Tartan lobby fodder". In stark contrast, the lone 'Tartan Tory', Peter Duncan (former MP for Galloway & Upper Nithsdale), had the dignity to ignore his party whip and abstain.
I have since come to accept the necessity of tuition fees but I, like Conservative MPs and the wording of Labour's 1997 and 2001 manifestos, opposed their introduction at the time. In 2004, English MPs (of all parties) and the English public were overwhelmingly against them but they got through because of Scottish Labour MPs whose constituents were unaffected. And now, Scottish MPs have the gall to stand up in Parliament and oppose their further increase, at a time of tentative economic recovery and the nation's finances in a mess (their mess, no less), having voted to increase fees when the economy was booming.
This time, unlike in 2004, the votes and speeches of Scottish MPs should not derail the democratic prerogative of the English MPs whose constituents these reforms affect, and affect alone. Even if most Liberal Democrat MPs abstain on the vote, it shall pass.
In 2004, the involvement of Scottish Labour MPs was a constitutional scandal. Thankfully, today it is merely a bloody cheek.