Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
The hotel I’m staying in this week has one of those indoor-outdoor swimming pool set-ups. You start swimming in an indoor section: usual thing, a rectangular, shallow basin, but tucked away on the diagonally-opposite side of the entry-ladder is something like a tunnel, connecting the indoor section with its larger, outdoor self.
The sensation of starting a stroke under a ceiling but ending it under the sky is beguiling, while the few instants within the tunnel are memento mori frightening. Breathe! Breathe! Or you’ll die!
It’s a little perplexing, too: although the medium within which one exists hasn’t changed – it’s the same mass of water, on either side of the tunnel – the feeling of the swim is transformed. The medium feels different because of a change in those phenomena which are external to it: so is it the same medium at all?
The ceiling, and the sky, they couldn’t care less; neither the water. It’s the swimmer who’s changed, somehow. Something to do with potential. Moments of potential (think of its latin root) are so rare, so valuable. I put off returning to the tunnel, and the darker indoor room.
From North Carolina swimming pools to British politics. The medium in which we’re politicking hasn’t changed since last week: the same population, the same economic and demographic issues, the same “We’ll cut your gas bill by taking loadsamoney from a vanishingly small group of bankers/folk with big hooses/posh folk anyway” at the same time as “we really mean it that we’re serious about the deficit now, honest” message from the Labour Party.
But we started the stroke under the constraint of Union-loss, we pushed through the breath-snatching tunnel of referendum day, and we’ve ended under the liberating sky of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: Union redux. Such was the rush into “Whither England?” – by lunchtime last Friday the Prime Minister had been offered several competing visions of What He Must Do Right Now (I know, me too) – that we seem to have overlooked this psychological point.
Swimming – sorry, politics – feels bigger this week than it did last. We have a moment of potential. I’m not in any rush to spend that moment kinetically, which in political terms almost always means: frenetically. Think of the bad-tempered guff about the NHS that Salmond came out with when he felt it slipping away.
I’d quite like to pause for breath, to think of the many potentials of the post-referendum Union, before voting on how devolution for England could or should be enacted. Oh yes, I know, the West Lothian question must be answered. I’m just not convinced that it has to be answered before Christmas.
After all, it has required an answer since Blair’s constitutional vandalism of 1998. I’m just not clear where it has been demonstrated that up to this point of devolved decision-making, from 1998 to 2014, no notice had to be taken of the West Lothian question; the devolution, however, of any single further issue from Westminster to Edinburgh requires the governance of the entire Union to be altered, and this must happen in the next three months.
Note what I’m not saying. I’m not saying the WLQ is unimportant, that it doesn’t require an answer, that we shouldn’t even secretly take great pleasure in what is likely to be the outcome for the British Labour party, should any reasonable settlement come into being.
But one reason that some Unionists (self included) viscerally opposed Salmond-separatism was because constitutional change affects everyone, forever: those who have lived, and those who are yet to live, as well as the random set of voters breathing oxygen on the day of the vote. (I think Edmund Burke puts it better somewhere.) Changes to a constitution, especially one as ancient and messy as ours, should be made with the greatest of care.
Sow the seeds for the delegitimisation of any future Labour UK executive, were it to hold office by dint of votes from its Scottish members: fine. If we need to, spend some money testing the Prescott/Clegg model to destruction: hold more referenda on “Would you like a toothless, yet tax-raising assembly, for your a-historical, invented euro-region?”
You’ll have your own good questions and proposals: should we grow Manchester and Birmingham into city states? Should we have English votes for English laws? Wouldn’t such laws require an Executive? Should that Executive sit in London?
But we should take our time in answering such transformational questions, and distrust instamatic solutions. I don’t want West Lothian to be answered until every English voter understands it, lest the answer prove unsatisfactory, and short-lived. This isn’t France: constitutions shouldn’t come and go with the frequency of the Number 8 bus.
We’re in the same body of water we’ve always been, but, just for this instant, the constraints on where we can swim are loosened. Why rush into someone else’s room? Lie on your back, look at the sky, feel the sunshine, and think. What if it’s cold, and dark, on the other side of the tunnel?