With the date looming ever closer, attention is naturally sharpening as never before on the referendum on Scottish independence. Alistair Darling’s surprise win against Alex Salmond in Tuesday’s debate has only added fuel to that fire. In my weekly scouring of the regional press for this website’s Red, White, and Blue column, finding non-referendum Scottish stories is becoming gradually more difficult.
Yet beneath the referendum stories, there has for some time been an undercurrent of speculation about what will happen to the constitution in the event of a ‘No’ vote. All the main unionist parties are committed to ‘more powers’ of some form or another, but this time there is a feeling that the various imbalances and inadequacies of Labour’s devolution settlement – the disconnection between taxation and representation, the haphazard transfer of powers, the West Lothian Question – need to be dealt with.
Alongside a referendum on the European Union, this could be one of the defining features of the 2015-2020 Parliament. Which is perhaps unfortunate for David Cameron, since there are no immediately apparent easy solutions to the constitutional tangle.
The principle aim of a constitutional settlement will be to bring an end to the ‘processes’ of devolution and strike a lasting balance of power between Westminster and the devolved institutions. Critically, it will need to ensure that a large and meaningful role for Westminster – for pan-UK ‘British’ government – is maintained, less the Home Nations end up living “separate lives under the same roof”, a situation which would make the eventual breakup of the Union inevitable.
Ignoring the West Lothian Question meant that Westminster’s MPs and Ministers have been almost important as they were in the pre-devolutionary era, since they still govern the great majority of the UK. This means that the proper defence of Westminster’s legitimate role in governing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has often been overlooked in successive bouts of devolutionary enthusiasm.
Any resolution to the WLQ will bring that problem into acute focus. Any attempt to balance out the distribution of power around the UK will bring home to Westminster politicians just how dramatically their role has been hollowed out in the devolved territories. Indeed, the best way to hear a good, old-fashioned integrationist (anti-devolutionary) speech these days is to prompt Welsh or Scottish Labour MPs to defend their votes on English legislation.
With all that in mind, what are Cameron’s options? One, considered to be the cleanest and least radical, goes under the name ‘English votes for English laws’, although the most logical model is a more general principle that only MPs from constituencies subject to given legislation can vote on it. It’s a procedural fix that resolves the WLQ whilst allowing Westminster both to remain the Union parliament and continue to govern the bulk of the nation.
There is a problem with this solution, and it was first identified in the late 1800s during the debates on Irish Home Rule. It was proposed that the Irish MPs could sit in an Irish Parliament that oversaw devolved matters and then sit in sessions of the ‘Imperial Parliament’ that governed non-devolved issues. It didn’t take long for someone to point out that, under that model, you could and probably would end up in the absurd situation of having two governments sitting in one Parliament – a Liberal/Nationalist coalition with a majority on reserved and Imperial matters, and a Conservative/Unionist coalition with a majority on any legislation on which the Irish couldn’t vote.
It isn’t hard to see how the same fate might befall Westminster under EVEL, especially in an era of closely-fought elections and ‘balanced’ parliaments. Labour, with the assistance of their cohorts of Scottish and Welsh MPs, form a ‘British government’. They then have to watch as the Conservatives, having a majority on English legislation, administer vast swathes of domestic policy – including such totemic issues as schools and health – from the ‘Opposition’ benches.
Logic suggests, then, that devolved and reserved legislation are best administered by different bodies. Simply removing ‘British’ government – whatever we have left of it – to another place, perhaps a reformed Upper House, is one way of going about this. This is the favoured solution of nationalists – the English Parliament.
Yet the principle problem with an English parliament, notwithstanding the potential for damaging rivalry between the Prime Minister and an English First Minister, is that it doesn’t bring power much closer to the people than it presently rests. The creation of a new institution to govern the whole of England would mean creating another expensive layer of civil servants, politicians and their various hangers on whilst leaving actual power as remote as ever.
The other alternative, perhaps the one most closely in line with Conservative (if not nationalist) thinking, is to devolve power more locally within England, and to encourage similar processes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Properly empowered local government and the distribution of political power could do much to rebalance the London-centric nature of our economic and political culture. Yet both regional assemblies and powerful, directly-elected city mayors have already been rejected at the ballot box.
Doubtless there will also be other pressures on the Prime Minister, not least by those who would replace our ancient constitution with a codified replacement, and by those out-and-out federalists who seek to fundamentally rewrite our constitution on the sly. But by far the thorniest, most important issue will be resolving the West Lothian paradox whilst maintaining a meaningful level of British government.
It is imperative that we have a Conservative Prime Minister leading that effort. In all its constitutional wranglings, from simply ignoring the WLQ in its original devolution settlement to Scottish Labour’s current proposals that the Scottish government should be constitutionally forbidden from lowering taxes whilst being free to raise them, Labour has always appeared to place its own party interest at the heart of its efforts at constitutional reform, regardless of the inequity and instability stemming therefrom.
Should our Union survive the coming plebiscite, we should take care not to subject it to more such injuries. They could easily cost us the next one.