Once of the most nerve-wracking battles of last month’s elections was in Scotland, where Douglas Ross and the Conservatives fought a high-stakes rearguard against Nicola Sturgeon’s bid for a second overall majority for the SNP.
The unionists prevailed, by a single seat, to sighs of relief in London, and since then the momentum seems to have gone out of the First Minister’s drive for a second referendum.
However, pro-Union Tories are also concerned that rather than using this window of opportunity to make an aggressive push on the Union, the Government has instead relegated it to a lower priority.
“They’re squandering the opportunity of the Holyrood result”, said one familiar with the development of the Union policy. Instead of a structured and ambitious programme, the Government is simply offering a series of announcements “of varying quality” and with no obvious theme.
This is not to say that all the announcements are unpopular. There is wide support for Michael Gove’s proposal to scrap English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), described as “a sh*t Cameron policy to solve a political problem which did not exist”. One MP even conceded to having “some sympathy” with the late Donald Dewar, the Labour MP and architect of devolution, who famously said that the best answer to the West Lothian Question was to “stop asking it”.
However, there was generally some acceptance that the ‘WLQ’ – the problem of Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on issues that affect English constituencies when those issues are devolved in their own seats – needed some kind of answer, even if EVEL wasn’t it. Several I spoke to explicitly linked the repeal of EVEL with the passage of the UK Internal Market Act (UKIMA), which grants ministers extensive powers to authorise UK-wide public spending in devolved policy areas.
As one person I spoke to put it, EVEL serves to further entrench devolution and “undermines Westminster’s universal mandate”, just as UKIMA seeks to reassert it. An MP suggested that the House of Commons should also overhaul its rules so that MPs from Scotland and Wales could table questions about devolved issues, and that devolution should not be “a one-way street”.
The problem with this is that whilst such an approach might in theory offset the real dangers involved in scrapping EVEL without replacing it, the move is not being sold as part of such a balancing act and there is no sign yet of a blitz of UKIMA policies – although there was a hope that a broader strategy will come together over the next few months.
Suggestions for what such a programme should involve include expanding the franchise for a future referendum to include Scots in the rest of the UK (“although make sure you poll them first”), building on the Union Connectivity Review, spending on cultural programmes and trying to set up a UK-wide amateur football league, promoting the Inter-Governmental Review, and a specific focus from the Department for Education on UK-wide projects (one MP suggested schools in Scotland and Wales should look at joining up to ‘One Britain, One Nation’).
Meanwhile ministers were urged to avoid “any dilution of parliamentary sovereignty” and “Gordon Brown-style constitutional guff”.
Boris Johnson was also advised to overhaul the implementation architecture behind Union policy, with even critics of Michael Gove’s approach saying that if he is in post then he should be “properly empowered” to do the job.
The past few months have seen the launch of both the parliamentary Conservative Union Resources Unit, which brings together around 80 unionist backbenchers, and Conservative Friends of the Union, which aims to train and organise the grassroots. We must hope the Prime Minister and Cabinet take the Union as seriously as the MPs and activists do.