23 October 2015

Cameron should have gone for a British federation


The House of Commons has passed EVEL, the English Votes for English Laws measure, that means MPs for seats in England will be able to block legislation that only impacts south of the border if they don’t like it. The SNP is outraged, saying it makes Scottish MPs second class, and concern about the implications extends to some Scottish Tories who agree privately that the result is a potential mess putting the SNP in the right.

But Chris Grayling, the leader of the Commons, is absolutely right that after decades of devolution to Scotland and Wales, a degree of protection for England is long overdue. This workable compromise is in keeping with the British tradition of improvising a solution rather than opting for a grand scheme.

I would observe too that Scottish demands – or the demands of the Nationalist 45% – are never ending. Nothing is ever enough. The SNP has made a terrible job of using the powers Scotland already has yet it demands more, more, more. ‎On everything they would rather have the grievance, giving the impression that their favourite posture is that of a pious complainant atop the moral high ground. It’s tedious and not a good look for Scotland, although most Scottish voters seem to love it.

None of that means, however, that EVEL will be enough in the medium term to settle this. Indeed, I fear that in the chaos of the post-referendum period an opportunity was missed by the UK government. I am not referring to the Vow – the front page commitment by Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, orchestrated by Gordon Brown and published by the Daily Record. Read it, and you’ll see that it does not say what the Nationalists now claim it said, but loose talk from Brown allows them to claim that this was pivotal in the referendum result, when the polling makes clear it had almost no impact whatsoever.

There was vague talk, privately, of a better, alternative Tory plan if the referendum result had been closer or the Tories were the largest party post-election without a majority. At the time I heard it whispered by several senior Tories that there was interest in proper devo-max, and a bold remaking of the UK. George Osborne has long thought that maximum devolution of taxation is the way to encourage the Scottish parliament to grow up and get on with it, within the UK.

Neither scenario – knife edge referendum result or hung parliament – came to pass and the Tories in relief reverted  ‎to their EVEL position.

This, I fear, was a mistake, although an understandable one, that sets the UK up for more constitutional trouble down the line, with the dominant Nationalists able to turn every minor inconsistency or UK policy proposal they do not like into an attack on Scotland. They hope this will erode support for the Union until the Scots just decide stuff it, and vote for independence.

Another scheme was put on the table, by Lord Salisbury. It suggested making the Commons a purely English chamber, with a Lords or elected Senate representing all parts of the UK. It would have clearly defined powers over UK-wide matters such as defence, foreign affairs and economic policy. The rest would go to the four parliaments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A grand cross-party and non-party constitutional convention would have been required to consider all this, of course. Much would have to be resolved. What would be the precise role of the UK PM exactly? In which chamber would he or she sit? How would the UK welfare and pensions systems to be devolved cleanly? If all taxes were devolved (other than VAT, which can’t be in the EU) then how would the sum sent back to the centre be agreed? Perhaps VAT could pay for specific UK-wide services or policy areas.

These difficulties are not insurmountable, and if they had been grappled with the UK could have been left at the end of the process with a durable constitutional settlement – in which the UK (monarchy, economy, foreign affairs and defence) survived to mutual benefit, and the constituent countries had full control over their levels of taxation and direction of public services. Instead, while EVEL is perfectly justified it feels like a sticking plaster, not a solution.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX