Is there no limit to the reach of the Curse of Brown? The former Prime Minister’s devolution plan was meant to secure Scotland for the Union. The best part of ten years on, the country has an SNP Government, over two in five of its citizens want to leave the United Kingdom altogether, and many of those who wish to stay want yet more devolution, too: his scheme has failed.
Having given booster jabs to Alex Salmond in his lunatic laboratory, Brown is now apparently set on plunging his needle into the arm of Nigel Farage. In the Commons yesterday, he argued against English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) on the ground that it would create two classes of MP. He seems to have been too busy saving the world to clock that this is so already. England’s MPs can vote on many of its internal matters, but Scotland’s MPs (and others) can’t vote on Scotland’s internal matters at all. Indeed, there are not so much two classes of MP as several classes of MP: consider the lopsidedness of the arrangements for Wales and Northern Ireland.
Since the former Labour seems to set the party’s line from beyond the grave – at least when it comes to the constitution – Farage will duly seek to wrest at least as much political gain from it as Salmond has done. Why is Brown set on a course that is so plainly perilous to the Union? Loopiness, say some. Patriotism, claim others. ConservativeHome has no quarrel with either of these explanations. But there is a third reason, which is at least as plausible. Labour’s former leader grasps that EVEL would mean the beginning of the end of his Party’s grip on England. By barring Scotland’s MPs from voting on England’s business, it would end Labour’s electoral advantage in the country at a stroke.
All this poses a dual challenge to David Cameron. Can he at once be more politically dexterous than Brown, and shut Farage in the box in which Brown failed to lock Salmond, and at the same time act for the country as a whole – as Brown failed to do? The best way from him to start to do so is to ponder the range of the menu on Britain’s constitutional table. He has promised a referendum over Britain’s EU membership (and hinted to Conservative MPs yesterday evening that he may, as I suggested on Saturday, go nuclear on border control – metaphorically, anyway). He has endorsed a plan that would effectively end Britain’s ECHR membership. And the devolution debate has implications for the Lords.
All this points to a constitutional convention. Almost by definition, this should involve the people we’ve elected – that’s to say, not only MPs but MSPs and members of the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies too. The Upper House, elected Mayors and local authorities should also have some input into the national conversation. What a convention should not do is grant a special status to people outside Parliament that we’ve not elected – that’s to say, the left-leaning ranks of the quangocracy or, as Cobbett would have put it “The Thing”. Direct Democracy has a big part to play here, at least in the form of Direct Consultation.
There is a party political objection: that a Convention is Labour’s line. There are three answers to this, other than the simple one that it is the right thing to do. First, the one that this site is proposing isn’t to be confused with Labour’s politically correct stitch-up. Second, the official Conservative position isn’t hostile to a Convention. William Hague, bless him, told the Commons yesterday that “the Government will consider proposals for the establishment of such a body. However, it must be on the right terms and at the right time. In my view, there is merit in the idea, given that the British constitution is a living entity, and no one is pretending that it will have reached a perfect form in the coming months”.
Third, no Convention can stop the Commons voting as it wishes in the meantime. Indeed, nothing in the Government’s timetable can prevent it from not only voting on EVEL but introducing it – since what it needed for this purpose is a change not of law but of the Commons’ own standing orders. Dominic Raab has been pressing for a back-bench debate. Bill Cash has already tabled a motion that would bring EVEL about. There are ways and means by which the Commons can vote on it during the next few months. This raises a problem for Cameron. Since it can’t control the timing of such a vote, he also can’t guarantee that EVEL will proceed “in tandem and at the same pace” as Scottish devolution.
The most likely outcome is that EVEL will indeed be debated and voted on – and will fall, since the Liberal Democrats, like Labour, won’t support it, at least in a form that any rational person could understand. (Liberal Democrats being Liberal Democrats, their plan involves proportional representation.) Cameron will then make EVEL, like Chris Grayling’s ECHR plan, part of the next Conservative manifesto. Lynton Crosby reportedly hopes that this will play a significant part in the general election debate. We shall see. In the meantime, Ed Miliband is clapping his hands over its ears: hear no EVEL, see no EVEL, speak no EVEL.
None the less, EVEL is necessary if Justice for England – or “fairness”, as Hague called it yesterday – is to happen. However, it is not sufficient, either for England or the United Kingdom as a whole. After all, EVEL could leave England with a Conservative legislature but a Labour executive. This would not be sustainable. The whole country needs the federal solution set out in the ConservativeHome manifesto.