WHEN Prime Minister David Cameron strode out of No 10 Downing Street on Friday morning to give his response to Scotland’s rejection of independence, we might have expected some carefully chosen platitudes from a man with every reason to feel an overwhelming sense of relief.
A dash of one nation, perhaps, with a twist of heathy democracy, and a cherry of “I love Scotland” on top. That sort of thing.
Instead, Cameron’s remarks were sharply political.
Yes, he welcomed a No. But, beyond that, the prime minister restated his intention to see that new powers were delivered to the Scottish Parliament. Cameron, his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband had jointly promised before Thursday’s referendum that they were united in a commitment to see more powers devolved from Westminster to Holyrood, and he would see that the promise was kept.
There was more. Not only did the prime minister intend to see that this vow to Scotland was honoured, he would also see that politics was transformed across the United Kingdom.
This meant considering a strengthened Welsh Assembly and a renewed effort to see that the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland were also functioning properly.
But (and isn’t there always a but?) Cameron did not only have intentions when it came to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Having seen the No vote triumph on Thursday, the prime minister had things to say about England. Specifically, he wanted to talk about a new deal at Westminster, where only English MPs would vote on legislation affecting England.
The so-called West Lothian question would be answered.
Fair enough, surely?
Well, yes. But the prime minister’s words should caution us against assuming that the delivery of more power to Holyrood will be a painless exercise.
As polls began to suggest that the SNP was within a whisper of winning the referendum, Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband signed a letter in which they vowed that a No vote would not mean no change. It appeared on the front page of the Daily Record and, while the margin of unionist victory on Thursday – 55-45 – suggests this vow was not solely responsible for the nationalists’ defeat, it was out there as a promise they’d find hard to break.
The promise was that new powers would be delivered, that the Scottish Parliament was permanent, and that the Scottish NHS would always be the responsibility of Holyrood. Oh, and the Barnett Formula – the method by which tax revenues are divided across the UK – would remain. More about this in a moment.
There is, in place, a timetable for new powers to be delivered to Holyrood. The three main Westminster parties have agreed to publish a “command paper” in October when former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been given parliamentary time to discuss it.
A white paper is expected in November and all parties have committed to legislate next year. If time allows, this will be done before the General Election, but if not, then the issue of greater devolution will be the first business of the new parliament.
There is a commitment from all to make sense of what has, so far, been a mishmash of proposals. Sources in the Tory party say that they are prepared to accede to Labour’s desire for Holyrood to have greater power over welfare.
In return, Labour is willing to accept Conservative proposals to give Holyrood greater authority over taxation.
It appears there is a genuine acceptance that this package must be delivered. The political consequences of failure are clear: if Westminster fails to come through, then all of Alex Salmond’s warning about bluff, bluster and lies will ring true and the SNP can expect to capitalise with a lift in its vote next year.
Now, about that Barnett Formula pledge. If the UK is to change, to become more federal, then there are contradictions. Nowhere will these be more clear than in the prime minister’s plan to ensure only English MPs vote on English matters.
Barnett ensures that Scotland receives money based on the amount of public spending south of the Border. We do rather well out of it, too: per capita spending in Scotland is slightly higher than in England. But both Scots and English MPs will have legitimate concerns.
For those representing constituencies in England, a major concern is the idea that Scotland should have ever more power while continuing to benefit from a funding mechanism that sees their constituents (slightly) short-changed.
Scottish MPs will come at things from a different angle. Every decision on public spending in England has a consequence for Barnett funding.
Regardless of whether it seems logical and fair that English MPs alone should take decisions on issues which, in Scotland, are the responsibility of Holyrood, those decisions will have a knock-on effect on the amount of money sent north.
When Westminster cuts spending on anything, from roads to school-building projects, Scotland will see a commensurate drop in funding.
Scottish MPs would be powerless to intervene. This is the stuff of democratic deficit.
For Miliband, Cameron’s English votes for English MPs proposal would also create a serious parliamentary problem.
A future Labour government would depend on Scottish MPs for its overall majority. But what use that majority in the polls when new rules on voting mean that Labour loses a chunk of its parliamentary group when dealing with key legislation?
A Labour government could win a majority on election day only to find that, on issue after issue at Westminster, it has a minority.
It would seem that Miliband’s only option is to suck this up. If Labour doesn’t ensure that the new powers promised are delivered then it can kiss goodbye to Scottish constituencies once seen as strongholds. A safe Labour seat? What’s one of them?
David Cameron was certainly relieved that the Union still stood on Friday morning.
But he didn’t let his emotions get in the way of some clever politics that might just keep the SNP at bay while hobbling his Labour opposition in the House of Commons. «