Dominic Grieve QC is a former Attorney-General, and is MP for Beaconsfield.
I found myself in Edinburgh last Friday as a guest of the Faculty of Advocates for the start of the Scottish legal year. Not surprisingly there was, for those who supported Better Together, a great sense of relief. But it is also clear to me that for all the good news in a No vote, the result marks only an important battle won. If we believe in the benefits of the United Kingdom, then there is much more that is going to be needed to secure a common future.
As was apparent in the last few weeks of the campaign, the referendum offered an opportunity for widespread dissatisfaction with our political system, institutions and politicians to manifest itself. This appeared to have less to do with a settled desire for independence as for an emotional demand for change, similar to that which we see in the support UKIP can garner in England. Thirteen years of New Labour, and in particular the years of Tony Blair, have had a disastrous impact on public trust in the political process, along with the expenses scandal. For all the good we have been able to do in government in the last four years in many fields, this is an issue that has proved much harder to address.
As Conservatives, we have given a lot of thought to the shortcomings of Labour’s devolution settlement for Scotland. Lord Strathclyde’s report and recommendations for much greater devolution of tax raising powers to Scotland is a sensible package, and it was its existence and approval for it from within the Party that enabled the Prime Minister to offer it during the campaign in the pledge he made with other party leaders. It would give Scotland a much sounder basis for managing its affairs than exists at present, and give a Scottish government the responsibility from which comes proper accountability for the way it governs. It is in all our interests that it should be implemented. The further pledges on enhancing diversity of approach over welfare are also feasible.
The problem, however, is that on its own it offers another example of the kind of piecemeal devolution that has contributed to our present difficulties. Unless we can look at our constitution as a whole, I am concerned that we will never put together a package that give confidence for the future to all parts of our country. This is what Labour refused to do when first enacting devolution. In an ideal world, it would therefore be much better to proceed to a single reform that addresses not just Scotland but the other parts of the United Kingdom as well.
The issue of the West Lothian question and allowing English MPs to determine legislation for England only is the top priority. But we can’t ignore that the Welsh devolution settlement is seriously flawed. To begin with, it is so poorly drafted that it is unclear what has been devolved and we have already had three cases in the Supreme Court trying to interpret it. This is a basis for endless and unprofitable disputes and needs urgent change. Northern Ireland too is entitled to feed in to any reform process.
I am also troubled by any suggestion that the Barnett formula must be turned into a tablet of stone. As a unionist, I accept that it is right for wealthier parts of the kingdom to help those areas less advantaged. But Barnett is not based on current need, and will change out of all recognition as Scotland keeps more of the taxes it raises. The Scottish Parliament has itself recognised that it’s does not work well. I hope we will see it reformed.
I understand, as did my colleagues at Monday’s meeting with the Prime Minister at Chequers, that ideals must be tempered by political realities. The promise of change for Scotland was a solemn one. We must honour it or be discredited. But that does not prevent us from starting the process of dealing with English votes for English laws. If we can’t implement it in this Parliament because of a failure of support from the Lib Dems or Labour, then that offers the basis for a debate that many Labour MPs know they cannot win and should feature prominently at the general election next year.
I have never subscribed to the view that the West Lothian question is incapable of being resolved. The model could be the McKay Commission report with its English Grand Committee enacting a legislative consent motion to allow the UK Parliament to consider English business and with the subsequent structure of that consideration preserving the equality of MPs voting as one House in the chamber, while in practise ensuring that no business concerning England alone can be enacted without the support of English MPs. Or, as some want, it could be a more straightforward removal of the right to vote for MPs on business that does not concern their own constituent country of the UK. Both are workable, although – as Tam Dalyell so rightly said of devolution – the devil lies in the detail. But there are already anomalies in existence in the present system.
There is also no reason why such change must mean that Scottish MPs cannot hold ministerial office in portfolios that solely refer to England. They can still answer for their responsibilities to the relevant MPs. No one is deprived of the right to express a point of view on any matter. It’s important that we should preserve as much as possible an ability for parliamentarians to take an interest in what is going on in every part of our country.
Although I welcome these reforms and believe they can strengthen the United Kingdom, I have to say that on their own they will not be sufficient. The Union will survive and prosper only if people have an attachment to it. That requires much more work by all of us than has been done hitherto to sell the positive benefits that come from it. Ernest Renan, the 19th century French historian, described a shared national identity as having done great things together and wanting to do more in future. That will not happen if we allow ourselves to lead separate lives. As the MP for Beaconsfield, the interests and wellbeing of residents of Wick can and should be as important to me as those of my constituents, whatever form of governance is in existence. It is that concept that the SNP wants to snuff out – and it is for us as Conservatives to win this argument by example as much as by legislation.