Ed Miliband with Alistair Darling at the Labour conference in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

What happens to Scottish MPs if Scotland votes Yes?

Would they be allowed to vote on UK-wide laws? And would they still stand in May 2015?

After months of indifference, Westminster and Fleet Street have finally begun to recognise the significance of this September’s referendum on Scottish independence. Issues such as which currency the putative state would use and whether it would be able to join the EU are now accorded the attention they deserve. But there remains remarkably little discussion of what the political and constitutional consequences of a Yes vote would be.

If Scotland votes for independence on 18 September, the Scottish and UK governments will open negotiations on such matters as how to divide the national debt and North Sea oil revenues, the future location of the UK’s nuclear weapons and the possibility of a currency union. The Scottish National Party aims to reach a final agreement by 24 March 2016 (“independence day”), in time for the Scottish Parliament elections on 5 May 2016.

One issue that would need to be resolved long before then is the status of Westminster’s 59 Scottish MPs following a vote in favour of independence. As the former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith has warned, the UK would face a “constitutional crisis the like of which has never been seen”. The West Lothian question, which disputes the right of Scottish MPs to vote on reserved matters following devolution, would be posed in its most extreme form: should the MPs of a country that will soon secede be allowed to have any say on UK policy? Should they be allowed to serve in the British government? Some Conservatives darkly question whether David Cameron, having lost the Union, would be forced to resign as Prime Minister.

There would be further upheaval in May 2015 when Scottish voters would elect MPs to serve for as little as ten months before being expelled from Westminster. Were a Labour (or Labour-Lib Dem) government to be formed on the basis of support from MPs north of the border (where Labour currently holds 41 MPs to the Conservatives’ one), the right-wing media and many Tories would denounce it as an illegitimate imposition on the rest of the UK. Ed Miliband, meanwhile, would face the prospect of losing his majority less than a year after becoming prime minister. As a Labour MP put it to me, “If we lose Scotland, we could be completely buggered.”

The belief that Scottish independence would consign the rest of the UK to permanent Conservative government is one that inspires hope among Tories (“It’s win-win for us,” one told me recently) and despair among Labour. But both overestimate the influence of Scotland on general elections. On no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament (1964 and October 1974). Without Scotland, Labour would still have won in 1945 (with a majority of 143, down from 146), in 1966 (75, down from 98), in 1997 (137, down from 179), in 2001 (127, down from 166) and in 2005 (43, down from 66).

What those who say that Labour cannot win without Scotland are really arguing is that the party will never win a sizeable majority again. History shows that England and Wales are prepared to elect a Labour government when the conditions are right. But, at least for psephological reasons, it is Miliband, more than Cameron, who has cause to fear the tightening of the polls.

This piece appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Getty
Show Hide image

A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.