Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the BIS Select Committee, the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Stratford on Avon.
On September 18th our Union was saved. Common sense beat wishful thinking. Shared bonds of history, memory and family endured.
I am deeply grateful to the patriotic Scots who voted No. My family owe this country everything. When we left Iraq it was Britain where we made our home: the world’s most successful multi-ethnic partnership, a place where belonging wasn’t about what accent you spoke with, or which football team you supported, but about what you were prepared to contribute.
If the Yes campaign had triumphed much of that would have been lost. Most nationalists fought an honourable fight, but lurking on the fringes of the independence movement there was always the nasty implication that if you cheered on England at football, if you voted Tory or were even a bit posh then you weren’t welcome in Salmond’s Scotland.
As the polls tightened, a few fearful Unionists began to question the Prime Minister’s handling of the Edinburgh Agreement. We heard that the timing was wrong, the wording of the question was wrong, and that the wrong options were on the ballot paper. Looking back, these fears were misplaced.
Take timing. Holding the referendum in late 2014 meant the No campaign got the full benefit of the jobs boom which began in 2013. The charge that ‘Westminster’ was mishandling the Scottish economy was therefore less potent than it would’ve been earlier on in the Parliament. Of course Scottish Labour were never going to campaign on the success of our economic policies, but those policies did make their job easier.
It’s equally a mistake to think that devo max should have been on the ballot paper. We never asked for this fight, but when it came we needed a decisive win to put it to bed for a generation. A clear rejection of separation could only come through a straight yes or no.
Then there’s the slightly patronising suggestion that more Scots could’ve been induced to back the Union if they were voting yes rather than no. Trying to win through verbal sleight of hand would not have done us any credit. The SNP tried rhetorical trickery, glossing over the devolved status of health policy, fudging the difference between ‘keeping the pound’ and belonging to a currency union – it didn’t work.
Nor do I buy the analysis that one poll forced a series of unnecessary concessions on further Scottish devolution. The Act of Union is not a sacred text, unchanging and immutable, but a treaty between two free peoples, based on consent. When 46 per cent of one people withdraw their consent they cannot be ignored.
But nor too can the English. This debate raised profound constitutional questions about the nature of our Union, questions which have been put off for far too long. After decades of asymmetric constitutional development, England needs a fair settlement. Having seen off the nationalist threat, David Cameron has seized the initiative and is determined to deliver that settlement. We need to give him our full support.
Some are already raising questions about the timetable for reform. They forget that kicking the can down the road is exactly how we ended up with unequal treatment for England in the first place. Constitutional reform is always difficult. Compared to the latest foreign policy crisis, or the pressure to deliver jobs, it will never be seen as an immediate priority. But this can no longer justify inertia. In the economic arena we’ve shown what can be achieved if you have a plan and stick to it – we must take the same decisive approach to the English Question.
There’s a valuable debate to be had about further powers for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet first and foremost, we must look at English votes for English laws. Parliament has long voted on bills which apply to England (or England and Wales) only; it’s high time we reviewed the role of MPs who don’t have a personal stake in the legislative process.
Philip Blond recently observed that only 21 of around 5000 votes since 1997 would have gone differently if Scottish MPs were excluded, arguing that West Lothian is a peripheral issue. I disagree. Several of those 21 votes were highly controversial, some had a massive impact on future policy decisions. Take the introduction of university top-up fees, or the vote on NHS foundation hospitals. Absolute numbers don’t tell us much. There is a world of difference between a technical vote on Commons procedure carried in a empty chamber on a Friday, and a vote on major public services reform.
Ed Miliband’s response to the Prime Minister’s plans has been to prevaricate, with a vague suggestion of a ‘constitutional convention’ to be held after the election. This is a naked attempt to kick the issue back into the long grass where it has long languished and we need to call Labour out on it. A party which is formally committed to fairness can’t be allowed to prop up a system which is unfair to England.
I said I’m grateful to Scottish Unionists, but I’m also grateful to the nationalists. They’ve made us think harder than we have for decades about who we are and what we stand for, about what Britain means three centuries after the Act of Union. As my colleague Alistair Burt eloquently put in an article for this website, few other countries would put the demands of democracy over their own territorial integrity. We may not have an empire but we still have a role, an example to the world of how to do politics. That same commitment to fairness and principle must now apply to the rest of the United Kingdom.