On the eve of the 1997 election John Major foresaw the acts of constitutional vandalism Labour would enact if it won the election. He warned Tony Blair would “do our Union to death”. That may have been a rather lurid description but Major was one of the few politicians of the time to understand the consequences of devolution for the Welsh and Scots. He knew that it would give rise to demands from England for a level playing field. Nine years on those demands are becoming more vociferous.
The response from the Conservatives is to solve the West Lothian Question by proposing that Scottish MPs should be banned from voting on English-only measures. On the face of it, it’s a proposal which is easy to explain, easy to sell and completely logical. As an interim and short term ‘band-aid’ it should be supported, but as a long term solution it is flawed.
There are two reasons the Conservative Party needs to be wary of adopting this as its only policy response to the creation of a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.
Firstly, it is easy to portray “English votes for English measures” as being “anti-Scottish”. It isn’t, but that’s how Conservative opponents will portray it. This is already Labour’s first line of attack with a source close to Gordon Brown brazenly declaring that “there is only one Party which represents the Union and is prepared to stand up for the union, and that is the Labour Party.” Whether the author of these words managed to keep a straight face isn’t reported. The subtext of Conservative briefings has been that it might now be impossible for a Scottish MP to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. While it’s a good way to needle Gordon Brown it reinforces the belief of those Scots who wish to think ill of the Conservatives.
It also cements in the mind of the Welsh and the Scots that the Conservatives are first and foremost an English party. The Conservative leadership must realise that if it is to win an overall majority seats need to be won in Scotland and Wales. In Wales in particular the Party is in good heart. Nothing should be done which could undermine the real progress it is making in the run-up to next year’s Assemble elections.
Secondly, English votes for English measures does little to address the constitutional deficit the English now suffer. Not only do they see the Scots enjoying nearly £2000 more per head of public expenditure under the Barnett formula, they have their own Parliament to administer Scottish only issues such as transport, education and health - as do the Welsh with their Assembly. Meanwhile English students have had tuition fees inflicted on them purely on the votes of Scottish MPs.
There are only two ways of righting this wrong. The first is for the Conservative Party to consider abolishing outright the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. While this is attractive in some ways, as both have failed to enhance their reputations in their short existence, it is not a route the Conservative Party should go down. David Cameron has already made clear his commitment to “making devolution work” and he’s right.
So the Conservatives should adopt a three stage policy which stands the best chance of achieving Cameron’s goal of rewriting the constitutional settlement in a way which is fair to all component parts of the United Kingdom and does nothing further to damage the Union.
English Votes for English Measures can be the first stage of this process, but Cameron should be clear it is just that, and not pretend that it is a long term solution. The second stage is to invite a full debate on English devolution and end up with the establishment of a cross party English Constitutional Convention. Having set up such a Convention in Scotland prior to devolution Labour would be put in a difficult position. They let the genie of devolution out of the bottle it is difficult to see how Labour could argue against such a Convention, although argue against it they surely would.
The third stage of the policy would be to allow a referendum on the creation of a full-blown English Parliament, but one which has none of the bureaucracy and extravagance associated with its equivalents in Scotland and Wales. At the same time the Welsh Assembly should be upgraded to a Parliament.
So why is the Conservative Party so reluctant to go this far? My only conclusion is that it is afraid of the consequences.
Understandably there are fears about the future of the Union. Opponents of an English Parliament have been very successful in creating a number of myths. The first is that it would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. The UK has survived for 300 years. Few supporters of an English Parliament would wish the UK to be fragmented into four entirely separate nations. The bigger danger to the future of the UK is if the issue is not addressed and the sense of injustice engendered by maintaining the current unsatisfactory status quo is allowed to fester.
The second myth suggests that England would dominate the Union if it had its own Parliament. Not so. Each parliament would be responsible for policy and public spending within its own territory. England would be no more dominant than it is at present.
Critics also suggest that an English Parliament would create yet another tier of government and be an unnecessary expense. It certainly needn’t be. It could sit in the Houses of Parliament and the Constitutional Convention would be tasked with ensuring that unnecessary bureaucracy and expense is avoided.
This is not an easy issue for any political party to address. But it will not go away. English devolution is one which is actively being considered by the Liberal Democrats, as well as the Conservatives. Various LibDem politicians have made polite overtures to the English parliament lobby but in the end have hesitated to adopt it as policy. But they are clearly thinking about it. The Conservatives would be very unwise to be outflanked on this by Ming Campbell.
Ken Clarke’s Democracy Task Force should at the very least make clear they will consider the merits of proposing an English Constitutional Convention. It would suggest that the Party is thinking further than the short term band-aid of English Votes for English Measures and it has the added advantage of putting both the Labour Party and the LibDems on the spot.