Allan Massie: Evolution needed on both sides
We’ll be raking over the ashes for some time yet, but one thing is clear: Outside Glasgow and Dundee, independence was roundly rejected. Whatever the enthusiasm of the Yes campaigners, Scotland voted No. Indeed, even in Glasgow the No vote was higher than the Yes one was in Edinburgh. It’s no surprise, of course, that many supporters of independence believe that The People failed them. But that’s the trouble with democracy – people don’t always do what they’re telt; they don’t know what’s good for them; they’ve been tricked or led astray. All the same, there is something unseemly in middle-class journalists berating the middle classes for not voting as the middle-class journalists know they should have. The fact that no-one can get away from is that two million of the people of Scotland are quite content that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom.
What now? Everyone – or almost everyone – knew that further devolution was on the way. It’s not clear that the somewhat panicky promises made by leaders of the UK parties in the last fortnight swayed many votes, or were indeed necessary.
The exact form and extent of devolution is the first issue. That in itself may not be too difficult, but the consequences for the other parts of the UK, and the shape of a future UK constitutional settlement, raise all sorts of questions. Some form of federation or confederation seems likely, but devising one that gives general satisfaction requires hard thought.
There has to be a UK government because there are important areas of government that require this: monetary policy, foreign policy, defence, security. That government has to be drawn from a parliament elected on a UK-wide franchise. The present distribution of seats is fair enough. Scotland shouldn’t have fewer than the 59 seats we now have – indeed, depending on other decisions made, and on whether it is possible to effect a fairly clear distinction between UK matters and purely English ones, we might reasonably argue for a return to the 72 seats we had pre-devolution.
This brings us to the English problem. England alone has no national parliament or assembly, though it has, of course, a huge majority in the House of Commons, on account of its bigger population. Some argue the Commons should become an English Parliament, with the House of Lords transformed into a British senate. This might work – you would have a UK government distinct from an English one. But I suspect this would be a leap too far.
A more modest reform is likely to be more acceptable: the new acronym Evel – English Votes for English Laws. The Speaker would label some legislation as “England only”, and Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs would be barred from voting, possibly even from speaking in the debate. There would be a case for permitting them to speak, if only to draw attention to the implications of the proposed legislation for their parts of the UK, but that they shouldn’t vote seems fair and sensible.
For many the drawback to this really quite simple and elegant scheme is that you might on occasion have a UK government which didn’t have a majority in the Commons for Evel measures. The simple answer is: “So what?” A minority government can work quite efficiently, as we learned in Scotland in the 2007-11 parliament. It has to compromise, do deals; it can’t push through measures for which it can’t obtain a parliamentary majority. All this is eminently democratic. During the Mitterand presidency, France experienced “cohabitation” – a Socialist president and a right-wing prime minister. The country jogged along and didn’t fall apart.
If there was Evel now, the present coalition government would have no difficulty in passing England-only laws. If after the general election next May Labour forms the UK government, it might well experience such difficulty. But if it had no majority in England, then that difficulty would be perfectly proper. It would have authority as well as power in UK-wide matters, but when it came to Evel ones, it would have to trim its sails and compromise. What’s wrong with that?
Here in Scotland, the referendum result invites speculation about the prospects for the main political parties themselves. The general assumption is that Labour is in trouble. Glasgow’s defection robbed it of its stronghold, while it has, we are told, already lost Dundee.
Maybe yes, maybe no. Though the SNP has been nibbling away at the Labour vote in Glasgow for some time now, nobody can be certain that it is in a position to be the dominant Glasgow party. It’s conceivable – may even be likely – that Labour will woo back defectors next May. Given the choice of a Conservative or Labour government in Westminster, why vote SNP? “A vote for the Nats is a vote wasted” would surely be the line for Labour to take then.
In any case the SNP has its own perplexities. First, it has to bounce back from defeat. Once the stour has settled, there will be nationalists who question the referendum campaign tactics. Second, the effect of Alex Salmond’s resignation is incalculable.
“Alex Salmond for First Minister” won a lot of list votes in 2007. He had a stature in the country and an authority within the party which will be hard, perhaps impossible, to match. Third, if the SNP tilts left in an attempt to hold on to the gains it seems to have made in Glasgow and other parts of the west, it risks losing its hold on much of the North-east.
That independence was rejected in what were described as the party’s heartlands was no great surprise, because in a four-party contest you can win a constituency seat even if two-thirds of the electorate is against you. Nevertheless, the SNP currently holds seats in parts of Scotland that are more to the right than to the left of centre, and any leftward drift will cost it votes, and perhaps seats, in much of rural Scotland.
Meanwhile, having enjoyed the rare experience of being on the winning side, which they could hardly claim to have been in 2010 despite the return of the Conservatives to government, the Scottish Tories are likely to feel refreshed and invigorated; they may even start recruiting members from young people who flocked to support the No campaign. And the Liberal Democrats would also surely benefit if the SNP moved to the left.