THE prospect of the full re-drawing of the British state moved a step closer last night amid fresh calls to create an English parliament by a senior member of the Westminster coalition.
In response to the moves by the SNP to take Scotland out of the Union, Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Lib Dems, said that it could be time for “English devolution”.
Claiming the current set-up was “unjust” to the English, he also said the law should be changed to bar Scottish MPs from voting on English issues at Westminster.
Hughes’ intervention came in advance of the unveiling of Alex Salmond’s proposals for the holding of an independence referendum at Holyrood this week. It emerged yesterday that the SNP may be planning to hold the referendum – planned for the autumn of 2014 – on a Saturday to boost the turnout at the polls.
Although not a holder of a ministerial post, Hughes is one of the most influential figures in the Lib Dem party. An English parliament is not Lib Dem policy, but if created it would shift the UK towards a federal system, with its four nations increasingly tied only by foreign affairs, defence, and other nationwide issues.
It would also bring into question the system of central funding on which the vast majority of Scotland’s schools, hospitals and public services rely, pushing the nations of the UK ever closer to a system of fiscal independence.
In a speech in Derby last night, Hughes said that the independence referendum in Scotland would provide “an opportunity to make an important constitutional decision about the way we make laws in England in the future too.
“People in England should use this debate and referendum as an opportunity not a threat,” he said. “Now that there has been welcome devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there may be devolution to England too.
Hughes’ comments came after UK ministers last week set up a commission on whether Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs can vote on English-only matters.
He said: “The present system has become unjust to England and should not continue. At last we have an opportunity to correct this in this parliament. We now have a chance to make a decision which will be good for lawmaking, good for parliament, good for the public and good for all four corners of the United Kingdom.”
Hughes said that in his view the “easiest way” to solve the so-called West Lothian question – which asks why Scots MPs can vote on English issues, while English MPs cannot vote on Scottish issues – would be to ensure that only English MPs had a say on laws affecting England.
On Wednesday, Salmond is expected to set out his own plans for an independence referendum with a statement to the Scottish Parliament. The SNP will say that a single question on staying in or out of the UK is its “preference” and will also suggest that the franchise be extended to allow 16-year-olds to vote.
Last night, he launched a furious attack on his political opponents, accusing them of “lurching from one half-baked scare story to another”.
“As all of these scare stories are exposed at this stage, the anti-independence campaign will be left with nowhere to go, while the pro-independence campaign will enthuse and engage people the length and breadth of Scotland with our positive vision for the future of the country. The referendum will offer the people of Scotland a historic choice on their own future, and the consultation we publish this week will help inform that choice.”
His attack came as SNP sources suggested on Friday the party was happy to accept a recommendation by the UK Government to allow the Electoral Commission, reporting to Holyrood, to oversee the poll.
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore welcomed the decision and last night said the SNP also needed to clarify its plans on the question it would like to put. “I hope that they will acknowledge that a multi- option referendum is made impractical by the complexity and confusion it would create,” he said.
On Hughes’ proposals, a spokesman for SNP minister Bruce Crawford said last night: “The simplest and most straightforward answer to the West Lothian question is – and always has been – independence for Scotland. Independence will mean no Scottish MPs at Westminster. Scotland raising all the money it spends, decisions taken in Scotland for Scotland, and a new 21st century partnership of equals for these islands.”