First he in effect called for a “devolution max” offer to be made to Scotland, and then for a straight “in or out” referendum to be held upon it. By “devolution max”, Major includes full fiscal responsibility and pretty well all law making powers, except in respect of defence and foreign policy.
He clearly thinks that the Scots would vote to stay in the union on such a basis and, although he did not say this explicitly, that Alex Salmond probably thinks so too.
Calling for “devolution max” is easier than defining what it will be. The crunch issue is whether Scotland is worse or better off with a full fiscal transfer. Ingenuity probably needs to be focused on ensuring that it the impact is neutral at the point of transfer, with the Scots responsible for what happens thereafter.
The need for experts
Major’s other theme was in the inadequacy of party politics, and the existing House of Commons, to tackle the big issues of the age because of a shortage of experts able to look to the long term. He called for a range of experts to be appointed directly to the Commons, alongside existing MPs.
John Major’s thinking is that each party would make such appointments in proportion to the seats it won in a general election. Major was clear that these appointments should be made to the Commons, where the power lies, and not to the Lords, where (in his view) they would make far less impact.
This is an interesting idea, but I can’t see how it can begin to fly. What legitimacy would these appointees have to determine the fate of governments by their votes in the Commons?
It is also unclear what these appointed expert MPs would offer in practical terms. In technical areas, where there is little or no political controversy, the experts generally reign supreme already. As Secretary of State for Transport, I didn’t waste much time second-guessing the experts on whole swathes of important technical issues – from car safety design to signalling systems on the railways – where there is little public controversy. Although even in these areas, there are often difficult trade-offs which can’t be left to the experts alone. For example, do you apply the full extent of car safety design regulations to electric cars that can only go at a top speed of 60mph? Very tricky, very political – and the experts couldn’t agree among themselves on this one, as is often the case.
The role of elected politicians
However, as soon as you enter areas of public controversy, elected politicians have a crucial role in mediating between expert opinion and public opinion, and working out the best way forward that preserves or promotes public consent for changes, regulations or burdens being imposed by the state. In these cases the politicians need the best possible expert advice, but the whole point of democracy is that ultimately it must be for elected representatives – not experts – to determine a sustainable way forward. Not just because this is right, but also because it works. Experts are in no place to play this mediating role; it isn’t their job.
The grey area is the extent to which ministers need to be elected. In my view there is more scope for experts here – perhaps one appointed expert Minister within each departmental ministerial team – subject to proper accountability to Parliament and ultimate decision-making power continuing to reside with the elected House of Commons. For this, see the IfG’s recent report, The Challenge of Being A Minister.
Lord Salisbury, prime minister in Britain’s imperial heyday, used to complain that the military experts were always asking him “to garrison the moon to prevent an invasion from Mars.” But then, his generation of political leaders didn’t stop the First World War either. Getting the right balance between politicians and experts is one of the fundamental challenges of government and democracy.