I have read with interest, and some concern, recent comments on ConservativeHome
on the subject of devolution and the financial settlement which
Scotland, in particular, benefits from. These comments are doubtless
fuelled by stories in the London press about free prescription charges
in Scotland (and Wales), smaller school class sizes, free student
tuition and the like, which have raised the ire of various commentators.
Unfortunately, too much of the comment has been ill-informed. The
Scottish Government’s grant from the Treasury is a fixed amount, and
therefore any increased spending in any particular area such as
prescription charges will require to be matched by consequent
reductions elsewhere. It is quite legitimate to debate whether the
total grant is too high, and whether existing funding mechanisms should
be reformed, but the arguments should not be driven by extreme language
based on a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic facts.
This ‘English backlash’ to Scottish devolution is of course exactly what the separatists in the Scottish National Party want. Even after the election of a SNP minority Government in Edinburgh in May, there is no evidence of a surge in support amongst Scots for independence. Polls suggest that consistently no more than one in three Scots favour independence, and these figures have barely moved in the last ten years.
So the SNP Plan B is to stir up anti-Scottish feeling in England, increasing tensions and creating a demand for the end of the Union from the English. Being no fools, they take policy stances deliberately calculated to create headlines like those we have seen this week in papers like the Telegraph (see right). And in this they are aided and abetted by the right-wing commentariat, and a few Tories who should know better.
But that is not say that there is not a real issue here which should concern us. For the real architects of the current tensions are the Labour Government. Ten years in to a Labour Government, and it is clear that the constitution of the United Kingdom is a mess. We have lopsided and uneven devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And we have a set of financial arrangements which were always likely to come under increasing pressure, particularly in a situation where the political complexion of the devolved administrations differs from that in Whitehall.
The Conservative & Unionist Party for many years set its face against devolution. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that approach at the time, it now appears entirely out of kilter with the spirit of the times. Every Party leader since 1997 has made it clear that we accept that devolution is here to stay, and our job is to make it work better.
A Conservative Party committed to the principle of localism must be a champion of devolution, and set itself the task of sorting out the mess that Labour have created. But putting the pieces together in any coherent package, and simultaneously providing fairness to England whilst heading off nationalist trends on the Celtic fringe, will be no easy task.
We have already made good progress as a Party in seeking to address the West Lothian Question, although a number of consequential issues arising from the English-votes-for-English-laws policy have still to be dealt with. Sir Malcolm Rifkind proposed the formation of an English Grand Committee at a TRG fringe meeting I attended in Blackpool, and whilst this does seem a typically elegant solution, it is not the entire answer to the problem.
It is not for me as a Scot to say whether there should now be a wholly separate English Parliament, but I detect little serious enthusiasm for it. I suspect that most English voters would be happy with Westminster continuing to both as a UK legislature and as a de facto English Parliament, in the latter case with the exclusion of the Scottish, Northern Irish and (if appropriate) Welsh MPs, if a way could be found to make this work. The financial arrangements require to be looked at too.
Perhaps the end point of this process will be a federal, or quasi-federal, United Kingdom, with each component nation having greater self-government than is currently the case, including increased responsibility for raising revenues. In such circumstances a reformed House of Lords might act as a pan-UK ‘Senate’ binding the four parts of the Kingdom together. Perhaps such a radical solution will not be required, but we should at least be looking at the options.
As a committed Unionist, it grieves me to see the mess that the UK constitution is in. Blair and Brown have left us with unfinished business, and it will be our responsibility to sort it all out. If the Conservative & Unionist Party stands for anything, it stands for keeping the United Kingdom together, and seeing off the nationalist threat in whichever of our four nations it appears. That is why I believe that it is essential that our Party takes these issues seriously and proposes solutions which will create a stronger and more stable country.