By Tim Montgomerie
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There is a view among some Conservatives that Cameron plays into the hands of nationalists when he raises the possibility of further devolution. It's a view that Lord Forsyth espouses in today's Scotsman. In today's Guardian I explain why I disagree with Michael Forsyth and other "über-Unionists":
"Cameron must again face down the uber-unionists in his own party who opposed devolution from the very beginning and believe you stop independence by maintaining the status quo. In reality the UK will be kept together by ensuring that voters normally get the type of government they vote for. Current arrangements are unsustainable. You can't have responsible government in Holyrood when, as now, MSPs control 60% of public expenditure in Scotland but only raise 6% of tax revenues. Devolution that ensures Scotland has to balance its budget is not another step towards independence but a final step towards a sustainable settlement."
In then making the case for English votes for English laws as part of a move towards a federal UK I write:
"Not addressing the English question, like resisting further devolution, endangers the union. If the 2014 referendum becomes a close-run affair one of the factors that could tip the Scottish people towards endorsing separation is a sense of hostility from the English. In the countdown to a vote the English sense of injustice might grow as contentious questions of the UK-wide distribution of public expenditure and of Scottish MPs voting on English-only services bubble up the agenda. Cameron can nip this in the bud by making an early commitment to some tangible form of English devolution."
What I'm seeking is full implementation of this commitment from the 2010 Tory manifesto: "Labour have refused to address the so-called ‘West Lothian Question: the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.”
Further devolution to Scotland and some form of English votes for English laws will bring three main electoral benefits to the Conservative Party:
- The Conservative Party will have an opportunity to become relevant again in Scotland. One of the big reasons for voting Tory is to get lower taxes but so long as Holyrood is essentially a spending-only legislature that incentive does not exist. If Holyrood is responsible for raising 60% of all taxes in Scotland (as proposed by Reform Scotland's devo-plus idea) then a lower tax party might start to thrive. We might also see the beginnings of tax competition across the UK.
- If English voters vote Conservative they'll be able to have Conservative government in areas like healthcare and crime-fighting – just like the Scots can vote for SNP or Labour policies. At the moment MPs from other parts of the UK can over-ride the votes of English MPs when MPs vote on issues that only affect English constituents. Twice as many voters in England see themselves as English as see themselves as British. A political recognition of this is overdue.
- The final benefit is more general. Standing up for the rights of both the English and the Scottish to have the kind of domestic policies they want while remaining part of the UK is the right policy for a party of patriotism and localism. Labour don't want to recognise England because they like the current arrangement where they or the SNP rule Scotland but a small army of Scottish Labour MPs are then sent south to help them rule England. It's time to ensure devolution to England as well as to the other parts of the UK.