Peter Troy: People are now talking about the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian question

Journal columnist Peter Troy says the structures for true democracy  are already in place - but they badly need updating for the 21st century

Danny Lawson/PA Wire A general view at the border between Scotland and England just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed
A general view at the border between Scotland and England just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed

A positive advantage to emerge from the much hyped and vexed Scottish referendum debate in the media is information on the nuts and bolts of how we are actually governed; a consequence of which is the public are now asking detailed questions such as: can our political system serve us better?

An example of this is when a well-known journalist was asked by a taxi driver, who he engaged in conversation on his arrival in Edinburgh the day before the referendum vote: “if I stop the meter will you explain the Barnett Formula to me?”

To what extent The Treasury mechanism that is used to adjust the amounts of public expenditure allocated to Scotland and other parts of the UK was explained I don’t know, the point is that the question was asked, a reflection that public interest has been stimulated on political and economic detail, this is of course very healthy.

What is also interesting is that the now 90-year-old Lord Barnett informed us recently that he has become “ …increasingly ashamed of the funding formula that bears my name”.

Back in 1978 Joel Barnett MP was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in James Callaghan’s Labour government, which was running into huge economic difficulties.

The need was to find a formula for public spending that would silence the Cabinet, many of whom were requiring more money in a cash strapped inflationary environment for their high spending departments.

Barnett decided to update a century old formula that allocated state funds according to relative population size. The formula was designed as a short term political fix, yet it still entrenched the iniquities of the old system.

Like so many temporary arrangements the Barnett formula has become permanent; it has no legal standing nor democratic justification and, being merely a convention, could be changed by the Treasury at any time to a more appropriate funding allocation.

On examination of the detail we can establish is that last year for example Scotland received £10,152, per head, Wales £9,709 and England £8,529.

As Lord Barnett pointed out recently: “That’s why Scotland can now afford things England can only dream of such as free university education” adding, “in my view we should scrap the Barnett formula as soon as we possibly can”.

The reality is that since Lord Barnett’s solution to the funding problems of the government 36 years ago remains easy to administer and no government since has dared to upset the Scots the system continues.

As with the other much discussed matter there is a new found interest in answering the ‘West Lothian’ question; which concerns whether Members of Parliament from Scotland and indeed Northern Ireland as well as Wales should continue to vote on matters that affect only England in the Commons. English MPs of course can’t vote in the Scottish Parliament or in the Welsh or Ulster law making assemblies.

Not unsurprisingly there is, since the Scottish Referendum campaign, a clamour – or so sections of the media tell us – for English regional government; though I suspect that most people want to see real democracy rather than more government, as indeed they did back in 2004 when the people of the North East spoke out by a margin of almost four to one, against the idea of an elected regional assembly.

The reason for the rejection of regionalisation then, as now, is although voters like local accountability they feel loyalty to England rather than any new artificial entity.

The inhabitants of Berwick or Darlington have no desire to be governed from an additional tier of politicians in say Newcastle; they know a bureaucratic white elephant when they are trying to be sold one.

Creating a new English Parliament, or giving power to English regions, will not transfer power or meaningful accountability to the people; they will still have no direct part in decision-making.

People have to be part of a process that is accessible if politics is ever going to mean anything to them, and that means direct democracy on a county, not regional basis.

The structures of government for true democracy are in place, they, like the Barnett formula, badly need updating if our country is to be truly democratic in the 21st century.

  • Peter Troy is the Executive Producer of the film “Voices of True Democracy”, he can be contacted via


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