By Paul Goodman
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A fortnight ago, Harriett Baldwin MP asked the following question to Tom Brake, the Deputy Leader of the Commons, during Business Questions:
"I am delighted to hear that we will get the report in this session of Pariament. Does the Deputy Leader of the House share my aspiration that by the end of this Parliament we will ensure that English-only legislation is voted on with a majority of English MPs?"
"I am aware that my hon. Friend is pursuing this matter
vigorously—indeed, she made her own submission—but it is right that we
wait until we have carefully considered the arguments and options in the
report before taking a view. I am sure the House will want to do the
That question-and-answer highlighted an injustice to England; a Coalition tension; an uneven playing field – and a campaign by a tenacious backbencher.
- Injustice to England: Since the Blair devolution settlement, MPs who sit for Scottish, Wales and Northern Ireland have been able to vote on English business, but MPs from English constituencies have not always been able to vote on theirs. This is a special problem for the relationship between England and Scotland because of the combination of the extent of devolution in Scotland and the number of Scottish constituencies.
- A Coalition tension: Eleven of the Liberal Democrats' 57 seats are in Scotland. These include the Scottish Secretary, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Government's third most senior Whip. We, by contrast, have a single Scottish seat. Rebalancing the Parliamentary relationship thus has bigger implications for the Liberal Democrats than for the Tories – and they thus have far less of an incentive to give England justice.
- Uneven playing field: Depending on who you listen to, we need a 7 or even an 11 point lead over Labour to scrape a bare majority. The present boundaries and the Opposition's strength outside England aren't the main reason for this disparity: Labour's vote is spread more efficiently. But this week's demise of the boundary review is a reminder that the present injustice to England censors the self-expression of its natural Tory majority.
- A tenacious backbencher: How should you deploy your energies as a new MP in the Commons? One answer is: find a campaign to fight. This is exactly what Harriet Baldwin, the MP for West Worcestershire, did after 2010. Two years ago, I reported debate on Harriet Baldwin's Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill on this site. It proposed what its author called "a lower-strength version of English votes for English laws".
However, her intention was less to pass the bill than to stick a spur, repeatedly, into the lethargic horse of the commission examining the West Lothian Commission – and into the Ministers responsible for it. The McKay Commission, set up under the Coalition Agreement, has vanished amidst the long-grass for the past two years. But it is apparently due to report by the end of the coming session – in other words, by the summer.
David Cameron won't want to see the pitch queered during the run-up to Scotland's referendum. But if it produces, as it hopefully will, a "Yes" vote, the way will be clear for a future trade-off of further devolution, north of the border (Peter Duncan has argued the case for "Devo Plus" on this site), and justice for England, south of it. This won't be possible under the Coalition, but the Prime Minister should give the idea a big push come the end of 2014.
Indeed, he should wrap himself in the flag of St George after the referendum is safely out of the way. It will be claimed that justice for England – which Tim Montgomerie, I and Roger Scruton (in a beatifully-argued recent piece on this site) have all put the case for – is not exactly top of the list of voters' priorities. True enough. But it is part of the business of politicians to try to shift public opinion. I would like to see:
- David Cameron give a big speech or interview, or write a big newspaper piece, about Justice for England after the referendum on Scottish independence.
- Once given or written, the theme shouldn't simply vanish into the ether: Grant Shapps, Lynton Crosby and CCHQ should be charged with following it up.
- With Michael Moore in the Scottish Office, and no Conservative Minister charged with pushing England's cause, Cameron will need to find one – fast.
- I'm not sure whether an exiled Scot is the right man for the task, but Michael Gove's immense media savvy and intellectual grasp commend him for it. Any other ideas?
- Cameron could also make a big thing of St George's Day, if the business is done in a suitably groovy way.
And the campaign should also have a role for Harriett Baldwin, the determined backbencher who saw this ball on the ground, picked it up, and is running with it to this day.