TORY plans for English votes for English laws herald a UK that fails to do justice to Scottish interests, writes Joyce McMillan
IN A quiet way, it was a historic moment – perhaps in more senses than one. On Wednesday, the former prime minister, Gordon Brown, rose in the Commons to make what was probably his last speech there, after 32 years as an MP. And although it may not have been the greatest speech of his life, it was one with which many politically minded Scots of Brown’s generation would have struggled to disagree.
He was speaking, of course, in the debate on William Hague’s aptly named proposals for Evel, or English Votes for English Laws: proposals which represent the hasty Conservative response to the equally rash promises on further Scottish devolution made by the unionist parties in the final days of last year’s referendum campaign. And it’s doubtless because of his own high-profile role in promoting those unionist promises that Gordon Brown now feels some responsibility for the consequences of their implementation, which seem more traumatic for the Union with every passing day.
He was absolutely right, for example, to point out to the House of Commons that the future of the United Kingdom is now being put at risk as much by what has happened since the referendum campaign as by what happened during it; notably by David Cameron’s breathtakingly opportunistic decision – despite phone calls from his Better Together allies begging him to take a more statesmanlike approach – to link further devolution to Scotland with the kind of Evel proposals tabled by William Hague this week.
These proposals effectively give the Grand Committee of English MPs a complete veto on any legislation deemed by the Speaker to affect only England – including, following the Smith Commission’s strange and hasty decision to devolve all tax on earned income to the Scottish Parliament, budget decisions on English income tax. And with that attempt to shut Scottish MPs out of budget decisions that will affect 85 per cent of the UK economy, and largely determine its shape, the Conservatives have played into the SNP’s hands, and perhaps sounded the death knell of the Union they profess to support.
Now, of course, some Tory MPs will argue that moves on Evel were necessary to respond to growing English unrest over the the basic injustice summed up in the West Lothian Question – the question of why Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs still get to vote on devolved matters when they affect England, whereas English MPs have no voting rights over matters devolved to Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. Yet in the first place, as Gordon Brown suggested in his speech on Wednesday, the brute fact about the UK is that it is a fiercely asymmetrical union, with more than 85 per cent of its population concentrated in just one of its nations. This means that in almost all general elections, with very rare exceptions, England gets the government it votes for, and the rest of the UK has to put up with that outcome; and if Scotland has gradually gained increasing special devolved powers over the past century, that has been seen, broadly speaking, as a reasonable quid pro quo for Scotland’s long-term tolerance of being governed by England’s political preferences.
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Yet that historic compromise between the two nations is now being called into question by this new effort to deprive Scottish MPs of full participation in key economic decisions at Westminster; and that’s why there was a poignant ring, on Wednesday, to Gordon Brown’s argument that the Evel quest for “perfect symmetry in an asymmetrical world” might place the entire Union in jeopardy.
Then, secondly, and even more profoundly, this new Tory attempt to “speak for England” raises questions about England itself, and how accurately its views are represented by the Westminster perspective of pro-Evel Tory MPs like John Redwood and Bill Cash. In my experience, the England of the 21st century is a vastly diverse nation, which contains millions of people – from Liverpool to Portsmouth, from Truro to South Shields – who are fully as exasperated with the current Westminster establishment, and its failed politics of austerity, as any Scottish voter. As Brown suggested in his speech, only a wholesale re-engineering of Westminster, to allow proper representation in the Lords of England’s hugely diverse regions, would even begin to meet the standards of 21st-century democracy in relation to England; yet instead, its people are being offered a quick fix that seems largely designed to massage the wounded pride of English Tory MPs by offering them a bump up the pecking-order in the public-school politics of Westminster.
There are reasons, in short, why the SNP is currently riding so high in the polls in Scotland, and they can be found in increasingy disastrous failures of statesmanship by both of the UK’s main unionist parties. The Labour Party, whose very existence depends on generating a forward-looking, socially progressive vision for the people of the UK as a whole, has half-sold its soul to the reactionary project of global neoliberalism and neoconservatism, with predictable consequences for the party’s grasroots strength and long-term viability. And the Conservatives, who call themselves the party of the Union, have reached such a nadir of ideological, cultural and geographical parochialism that they think it clever, as part of their election campaign, to issue a poster portraying both the current leader of the Opposition, and the man who was Scotland’s First Minister from 2007 to 2014, as figures of grotesque nightmare, whose proximity to power is horrifying and unthinkable.
To paraphrase Robert Burns and later Alex Salmond, it therefore seems increasingly likely that rocks will melt in the sun before anyone in the current leadership of Westminster’s main parties finds the vision, skill and statesmanship to lead the kind of process the UK needs, back to a genuinely progressive social and economic vision which unites the nation, and towards the kind of constitution which would support that change of direction. Which is why the UK’s long-term future now looks fragile at best; and why Gordon Brown is right, at last, when he points out that while the government it leads may have won the referendum, the 21st- century Conservative Party is now undermining a Union which it no longer understands, and therefore cannot govern with wisdom, or with any real hope of success.