Monday, 22 September 2014

'Have you anything to share with the nation?'

It was the sort of event which would have made Harold Macmillan proud. The prime minister holding court at his country pile, with a select band of supporters – the vast majority male of course – to spend the day discussing political devolution in England, deciding what they think would be good for you. And then, at the appropriate time, a senior member of the party would deign to emerge and tell an expectant media what they had decided. One presumes that hacks present swiftly doffed their caps and said ‘thank you, guvnor’ in unison.

With great magnanimity, William Hague – for he was the senior minister – said the government was ‘open to discussions with the Labour Party and other parties as well’, and somewhat preposterously claimed that there had already been lengthy discussions on the matter of English devolution.

‘The issue of fairness for England – as well as for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – I think is one that cannot now be avoided. That is something we have to face up to.

‘It has been discussed for a very long time. The time has now come to make some decisions about this.’

While it is certainly true that the West Lothian question is an issue that has been raised over the years, to suggest there has been any serious discussions about political reform – less still, reached any conclusions – is disingenuous to say the least. And other aspects, such as regional devolution, comprehensive reform of the absurd House of Lords, and extending the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds seemed not to warrant a mention.

Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert and former tutor of David Cameron, has spent much of the day warning against rushing into political changes in England. And, writing persuasively in The Times, said:

‘The Scots have been thinking about their constitution for years; they set up a constitutional convention in 1989 to produce proposals on devolution.

‘The English have only just begun to think about their constitution. Their thoughts could be brought into focus by a royal commission which would hold public evidence sessions throughout the country, beginning a dialogue between government people.

‘After a constitution has been drafted, it must be submitted to the people for approval in a referendum. It would need a solid majority in each component of the United Kingdom. If the current turmoil stimulates a search for a long-term constitutional settlement, then the referendum process in Scotland will have brought real benefits to the whole of the United Kingdom.’

David Cameron would do well to listen to his former lecturer. Instead, though, he wants English devolution to be carried out 'in tandem' with handing out more power to the Scots, promised in the famous cross party 'vow' published in the Daily Record before last week's referendum. Any failure to deliver this pledge to Scottish voters will do enormous damage to the reputation of all politicians in Westminster.

On the one hand, though, it is tacit acknowledgement that the Conservatives have nothing to lose by pursuing this aggressively English agenda; the party has been effectively wiped out north of the border with only one MP defending a seat.

Meanwhile, on the other, he knows it is an uncomfortable issue for Labour, as they have 41 Scottish MPs, who have been relied upon in the past when a Labour government has wanted to force through controversial measures in the past. Bafflingly, it seems that Labour haven’t drawn up any alternative devolution suggestions within England, despite the fact that an appeal to English nationalism was bound to be the Conservative's tactic. As a result, Labour’s response to questions regarding English votes for English Laws, is genuinely shifty and unprepared. Simply saying it's 'David Cameron's trap', while being self-evidently true, isn't sufficient.

Another aspect to the prime minister's actions is that it offers an opportunity to compete with the UKIP in going after English nationalist votes. Until the fall out of the Scottish referendum, I had no idea the English were so downtrodden. And yet, according to a ComRes poll for ITV, published this evening (22-09-14), 61 per cent of people think England it taken for granted in the UK. 

It is clever party politics from David Cameron, but to indulge in such games over major constitutional change, and gear up to making it a dividing line at the 2015 general election, is wholly inappropriate. He may well be able to briefly assuage his troublesome backbenchers, but trying to railroad through reform in such a high-handed, patrician and tribal manner, won't do the British constitution any long term good at all.

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