The biggest issue currently faced by individuals, families and business may well be the economy, but not even the gloomiest forecaster anticipates terminal decline. So will history really judge the decisions that the coalition makes with regard to the economy as the defining feature of its term in office? If not, then what other decisions could emerge as contenders?
High Speed Rail to the Midlands and the North - too long term, can you remember which government first signed up for the channel tunnel? Reduction in the number of Westminster constituencies – necessary but not perhaps earth shattering. What about the alternative vote referendum? Perhaps if the result had gone the other way history may come to define the Coalition government as the administration that ended ‘first past the post’. May this suggest that in the long term at least it is significant constitutional reform that will define governments? If so what if the coalition government were to create, or more properly resurrect, an English Assembly? If the coalition government were to re-establish the right of England’s elected representatives to vote on matters that directly affect England only, would that not be judged the defining act of the period 2010 to 2015? And one way or another isn’t this almost inevitably going to happen?
The reason that a majority of the English appear to support Scottish independence even if their counterparts North of the boarder may not be so sure is because of the obvious unfairness of the current arrangements. Consider health and education. Both are devolved and so the Scottish government, as chosen by the Scottish electorate, decide what happens in Scotland. Fair enough. But then Scottish MPs, also chosen by the Scottish electorate, come to Westminster and vote on what happens in England. Unfair. Sometimes tipping the balance to the disadvantage of England compared to Scotland. Extremely unfair. And people in England are all too aware of this. When such unfairness is combined with what is widely regarded as an over generous financial settlement resentment becomes the order of the day.
There is a name for this problem. Some decades ago it acquired the title ‘the West Lothian question’. But, having found a name for it, Parliament has done nothing else for decades. The pending vote on Scottish independence means this can’t go on – and the ramifications are enormous.
Why? Because there will be a referendum on independence for Scotland – there are many issues around this - not least whether both parties are entitled to a vote on whether there should be a constitutional divorce - but however the detail is resolved there will be a vote.
If the result is pro independence then that is the end of Scottish MPs coming to Westminster and much of the unfairness is resolved. (Much but not all because the remaining countries of the UK – Wales and Northern Ireland - benefit from devolved powers and that imbalance would still fail to be remedied but this imbalance has never driven the resentment caused by similar arrangements in Scotland). But what if the outcome of the referendum is ‘no’ to independence? Well perhaps that is jumping ahead just a little too quickly.
Regardless of whether the UK as a whole is franchised for the referendum on its future it is a reasonable assumption that the composition of the UK in the context of possible Scottish independence will make the news. The major political parties are anxious to preserve the Union. Labour because a large number of Scottish MPs with dubious employment prospects outside the public sector would become redundant – literally. The Tories because…erm well why exactly are they against Scottish independence? Rarely in politics is a cause promoted for wholly altruistic reasons but perhaps in the case of the Conservative party this is just that situation. After all, in the short to medium term, there is much less chance of a Conservative government with a working majority if Scotland remains part of the UK. In 1979 over half of Mrs Thatcher’s majority of 43 came from Scotland. By 1992 the number of Scottish Tories had fallen by 50% and so had the majority. Even a cursory examination of the extent to which the Conservative Party was able to rally in the North of England in 2010 reveals much about the timescale for revival in Scotland and history struggles to produce examples of Tory majority governments without strong representation significantly north of the River Tweed let alone north of the M62! So altruism it must be but not without risk.
In order to be able to fight for the Union at a time when most of the English would apparently not mind showing their passport at Berwick if it gave them the deciding voice over policy for their for schools and hospitals, the Conservative Party risks not only a backlash of ill feeling towards the Scots but also towards itself because it may be seen as wanting to perpetuate an arrangement which is simply unfair in the minds of so many English voters.
The solution is of course blindingly obvious. Remove the unfairness so that the campaign to maintain the Union is a campaign to maintain an arrangement that is equitable to all and which maintains within the Union something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Objection has already been raised to this course. It is apparently difficult to work out which powers would be affected and it could take a long time to resolve. This is apparently not least because it was quite a difficult task when Irish Home Rule was considered quite a long time ago.
Things have moved on since then.
One way to resolve this apparent conundrum would be to write down on a piece of paper all the powers that have been devolved to Scotland. Underneath that list should be written ‘Powers for the English Parliament’ and below the heading the first list should then be repeated! Any remaining areas such as foreign policy and defence could then be written under the new heading ‘UK powers’. They would be the same as the powers that Westminster rather than Edinburgh currently exercise on behalf of the people of Scotland.
Whilst this would not necessarily conclude matters it would achieve more than has been achieved in the four decades since the phrase ‘West Lothian question’ was first used and would leave the rest of the morning free for those undertaking the task to consider any anomalies that may occur!
And this really is in the interests of the Conservative Party. An English Parliament would not be a shoo-in but it would be a good bet for the Conservatives and if the balance was held by the Tories, would a UK government of a different political complexion really be able to set policy in respect of the remaining non-devolved areas such as the constitution, foreign affairs and defence that was at odds with the views of an English chamber with an electorate of 85% of the UK population?
So politically the Conservative party should adopt a two-stage approach. Resolve the so-called ‘West Lothian’ question and then push for the Union to remain intact. If the Union remains it will do so with the overwhelming support of the English people relieved that the current unfairness has been resolved and with an English chamber that the Conservatives can use not least to demonstrate how Conservative policies work in England and would likewise work for Scotland. If the vote is for Scottish independence the continued progress of the Conservative Party in the North of England, together with the anticipated decline of the Liberal Democrats, bodes well for future elections in what will be the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Member of Parliament for Dewsbury
Member of the Scottish Affairs Committee
Article originally published in the Yorkshire Post