The referendum in Scotland is the most interesting thing to hit British politics for a long time. Last night the unionist side wheeled in former Prime Minster Gordon Brown. Mr Brown vindicated my judgement of him last week as being a cut above our current, mediocre political leaders. But how is this drama playing down here in England? After all the outcome involves us too.
The first point is that we are bit late on the game. The Scots have been arguing about the matter intensely for many months. The English, taking their cue from their politicians and media, have largely treated the matter as a foregone conclusion for the union. Only now is the terrible truth dawning. That lack of debate has left thinking very underdeveloped. But I have detected some new trends, at least in the rather non-typical, liberal circles that I inhabit.
Firstly there is envy. People in Scotland are having a real debate and vote on something that clearly matters. If they vote Yes it will make a real difference to the ruling political elite. Usually all that seems to be at stake is the recycling of the same group of usual suspects. Scottish people are talking about the country they want to be. It’s no wonder people are registering to vote and a high turnout is expected. We aren’t getting that here. And the thought of giving that elite, not just the politicians but the media pack, civil servants and lobbyists that cling to them, a bloody nose is distinctly tempting. It becomes rather less tempting when you think that it empowers an Edinburgh political elite, who, to say the least, do not look a trustworthy bunch. But that’s another matter.
The next thing is a common hope. Surely, after a Yes vote, or the near-death experience of a narrow No vote, a shake-up will follow in England? This referendum could be good for all of us. But that will only be true if a grassroots movement, from outside the Westminster elite, demands it. That is possible, though I see no sign of it yet. That movement needs something to ask for – some sort of constitutional change – but I see no evidence of the English developing enthusiasm for that. Without a grassroots movement, Westminster will simply drop back into its usual complacency.
A further response is a rather depressing one. Without the Scottish MPs the House of Commons will be weighted much more towards the Conservatives. There is a much greater chance of a referendum on Britain’s future in the EU. For many this is just the sort of constitutional change that will shake things up – even though its outcome will be to concentrate more power amongst the Westminster elite, rather than take them down a peg. The odds of the country leaving the EU will surely rise. Actually we should be a little careful here. The environment after a Scottish Yes vote will be so different that we cannot make predictions about how political attitudes will shift. The Conservatives may not find it so easy to win in the rump UK.
But what if Scotland stays in the union? The Westminster leaders are already promising the country a greater level devolution on our behalf. But they are silent about how this will affect the rest of us in England. That is no doubt because they are hoping people won’t care enough create much of a fuss. But it leaves us with the English Question. This is referred in Westminster pompously as the “West Lothian Question”, after the very pompous former MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell. This is no doubt their way of trying to minimise its significance and I refuse to accept this nomenclature.
The English Question is this. If Westminster has devolved powers to Scotland, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, it means that Scottish MPs can vote on a whole range of important questions of English policy, without English MPs being able to influence the same issues in Scotland (or Wales or Northern Ireland). It is a very awkward conundrum for Westminster types, because it is difficult to deal with without undermining their own power. Their typical reaction, when it is posed, it to mutter something about it being very difficult, and then to change the subject.
How might the English question be solved? There are three lines of attack The first is to somehow stop non-English MPs from voting on English matters. This is invariably the way Westminster politicians think of solving it. But it gets very messy. How do you, precisely, differentiate between English and British affairs without an explicitly federal constitution? What if the British PM does not command a majority in England? The second appraoch is to devolve powers to local governments in England. But, to be anything like equivalent to the Scots or Welsh devolution, there would need to be some kind of regional level of government. This only exists for London, though other metropolitan areas are inching towards such structures. The regions defined for European elections and statistical purposes have no resonance with public identity and are not fit for this purpose.
The third approach it to set up a separate English parliament, and English government, leaving a federal government to govern the residual issues of the UK itself. To me this looks the most promising way forward. But it raises many questions.
But the most important point for now is that there is no consensus in England about the right way forward, and the issues have not been aired enough. The next step, surely, is to convene a constitutional convention to develop proposals, which can then be put to the whole country in a further referendum or referendums. This convention could be convened either at the English level, or for the whole of the UK. The latter, of course, is the only way of dealing adequately with how a federal level of government could work, and what to do with such institutions as the House of Lords. But the big requirement is political momentum – and it may be easier to get this at the English level, and to deal with the wider consequences later. After all this whole process was set in motion by a Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1990s.
It is, of course, unutterably depressing that our political leaders, including the Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg, who should know better, are not calling for such a convention. But we English should be demanding it.