Allan Massie: Devolution - but what about England?

Politicians are promising to extend devolution, but what about England? Picture: Getty
Politicians are promising to extend devolution, but what about England? Picture: Getty
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Extending devolution following a No vote will raise difficult questions over the role of UK parliament in England, writes Allan Massie

Way back in the last years of the 20th century, Tam Dalyell said – or, if you prefer, warned us – that devolution would be a motorway leading to independence and that there would be no exit roads. Many believed him. This, after all, was why Alex Salmond saw off the so-called fundamentalists in his party who regarded devolution as a Labour trap for the SNP, and campaigned alongside Donald Dewar in 1997, even though Dewar believed that devolution would strengthen the Union and Salmond that it would prepare the way to end it; 18 September may prove he was right. However, even if it doesn’t and we vote to stay in the Union, the Nationalists will not believe this is the end of the story. One more push will do it, in their opinion.

Meanwhile, the three unionist parties are trying to prove that Mr Dalyell was wrong. They are falling over themselves, or each other, to provide exit roads from his motorway. These are intended to lead us to a land of further and more satisfying devolution, which, they think, or at least hope, will leave the SNP stalled or stranded on a motorway which, like the Edinburgh tramline, stops some way short of what was to have been its terminus.

They may be right. It is quite likely that they are right. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown support for further devolution – devo-plus or devo-max – and few doubt that if we had that third option on the referendum ballot paper, then it would have got more votes than either independence or the status quo. In any case, if we vote No in September, it seems that further devolution is as certain as anything in politics can be. The three unionist parties have made commitments which they could hardly escape, even if they wanted to.

David Cameron has given his backing to the proposals brought forward by the commission chaired by Lord Strathclyde, and Ruth Davidson, who was elected to the leadership of the Scottish Conservative Party on a firm “this far and no further” pledge, has had her road to Damascus moment and speaks with all the zeal of a convert. Fair enough: if we vote No in September, then, no matter what the result of next May’s general election, the new government will legislate for further devolution. Mr Cameron says “there is no reason why these changes shouldn’t happen early in the next parliament”; and I daresay Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg agree with him. But there is still a big question, an elephant in the room, and the elephant can’t be ignored, or simply wished away. Some might say the elephant is called England. I would say it is the constitution.

Tony Blair’s Labour government legislated for a parliament in Edinburgh and assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast, and granted them certain powers and responsibilities free of Westminster and Whitehall control. Otherwise, apart from small reductions in the number of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs at Westminster, it left the constitution as it was. This was a very conservative approach: modest change to allow things to remain essentially the same. The changes now being proposed for Scotland by all three unionist parties can no longer be called modest. So what about the constitution?

Lord Strathclyde’s commission proposes that a committee of UK legislatures, with representatives from the Westminster and Scottish parliaments and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, be established to review the working of the devolution settlements.

No doubt something of that sort would be useful; it might even be necessary. But is it enough? Does it even begin to address the consequences of asymmetrical devolution? The assumption seems to be that this doesn’t matter, that, somehow or other, we would muddle along quite happily. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs would still sit, speak and vote in the Commons. Some of them might hold high office, as several Scottish Labour members did between 1999 when the Scottish Parliament came into being and 2010. Alistair Darling succeeded Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer when Brown became Prime Minister, and among his several jobs, John Reid was Home Secretary with responsibility for matters in England for which, as a Lanarkshire MP, he had no responsibility in Scotland. And the English didn’t seem to mind, not much anyway.

So perhaps we might indeed manage to muddle along, ignoring the elephant. And yet if we are indeed to move to a quasi-federal UK, mightn’t it be better to clarify relations between its constituent members? Better to seek to answer awkward questions? Why, for instance, should an English-dominated parliament legislate for the whole of the UK in some matters but not in others? Why should Scottish members of that parliament be entitled to vote on laws which relate only to England? At the very least it seems that some conventions, acceptable to all, should be agreed on? Is there a case for making an elected Second Chamber the place where the devolved parts of the UK are represented, while the present House of Commons becomes the English parliament? Before Lord Strathclyde’s committee of UK legislatures comes into being – if it ever does – wouldn’t it be better for such a committee initially to take the form of a constitutional convention with a brief to draw up proposals for a written constitution?

Moreover, if there is further extensive devolution, we here in Scotland should consider whether our own internal constitutional arrangement is working well. Given that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the working of the committee system at Holyrood, because the committees usually seem to divide on party lines, should we have a second chamber with the responsibility of revising legislation?

If we vote for independence in September, most of these questions will obviously be irrelevant, though the last one – whether there should be a second chamber in Edinburgh – would become more urgent. But if we vote to stay in the Union, then the plans for more extensive devolution – in Wales and Northern Ireland, too – will sooner or later provoke dissatisfaction unless we address the constitutional problems this will expose. At the heart of these problems will be the relationship of the UK government to England. And this will not be easy to resolve in a manner that satisfies all the four nations that are, collectively, British.