THERE I was going about my business as a decent law-abiding, community-spirited citizen and family man. It was an ordinary day early last week. I took tea first thing and settled into my daily rhythm as usual.
And then it happened. Completely without warning. Out of nowhere. I was left dazed and queasy, questioning my very sense of self. An existential crisis.
Innocently reading an article in the Guardian I found myself nodding along in agreement with something the former prime minister, Gordon Brown, had written. Odd in and of itself. But worse, it was about the constitution of the United Kingdom.
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Look here, I didn’t mean it, it just happened. How was I to know? I was just reading the paper. I haven’t been sleeping well recently and am working really hard. I couldn’t help it. My mind just opened, in his words walked and I concluded the man was right. I am sorry but I can’t turn back the clock.
Now, even the dogs on the streets of my village (it’s a figure of speech – there aren’t any unless closely tended by their owner) know that Gordon is one of the most partisan party politicians of his era. But he struck me as speaking the truth when he criticised the UK government for their conduct since the referendum.
His beef is that the agenda of “English Votes for English Laws” (Evel) is foolish, short-sighted and threatens the fabric of British democracy. He cleverly drew lessons from Ireland’s story: “If Gladstone, after 50 years in politics and four terms as PM, could not find an answer [to the West Lothian Question], and no government in the next century found it a constitutional possibility, might it not be somewhat immodest for this government to tell us that they had found the answer in just eight weeks?”
He makes a good point. We needn’t be detained by his motivation, let us just consider the essence of it.
This week, the leader of the House of Commons railed against the idea that Scottish MPs could force their will on England and what an outrage this was. The irony seemed to be lost on him that this is precisely what Scotland has endured for decades.
The Tories used to argue that this was the price of being a United Kingdom and we would just have to thole it. Lest we forget, the Tories didn’t want devolution and a Scottish Parliament. Had they had it their way this “state of chassis” for Scotland would be continuing to this day.
When the prime minister spoke the day after the referendum, there had been literally nothing to justify his new found stance. No change in the constitutional position at all. It was pure unadulterated party politics driven by fear of Ukip and playing to the base instincts of an electorate in the lead into a general election.
It was as far from statecraft as you could hope to get. If Gladstone was the thoughtful steward of the constitution, this was a fast and loose gambit. A wizard wheeze thought up in a moment.
It seems the justification is the devolution of some of income tax (though you can bet your bottom dollar that Whitehall is manoeuvring to frustrate its meaningful implementation). But when the Tories first mooted this last spring, no mention was made by the prime minister, or team, of English Votes for English Laws as a result. So what changed?
In reality Gordon Brown is correct. If Scottish MPs are constitutionally barred in this way it will create a glowing hot wedge in the construct of the UK system that will burn relentlessly. They just haven’t thought it through. Might be a good thing from my perspective but that’s another issue for another day.
Meaningful financial devolution does not exist. Almost every decision taken by MPs on devolved matters can have a direct budgetary impact on Scotland. A move to raise tuition fees may seem an entirely English matter, but if it leads to less money flowing through Barnett consequentials to Scotland then it isn’t. The same is true of private income funding of the English NHS.
The correct answer in an unwritten constitution is the one the SNP have offered. And that is pragmatic and sensible non-voting by Scottish MPs when matters are exclusively English. But you can’t set that in constitutional stone in the current system. That would be a recipe for conflict.
The only real constitutional crisis would come if a Scottish block vote truly imposed an income tax rise on England that didn’t apply in Scotland. It would be unfair on England, of course it would. Just as the poll tax was on Scotland. It would never happen in my estimation. But creating potential chaos to avoid a hypothetical slight is not statecraft.
The Westminster and Whitehall system has played on the beach of reform diverting some of us with smoother pebbles and prettier shells when a great ocean of truth lies all undiscovered before them. This “chassis” is of their own making. And for that matter, Gordon Brown’s. «