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Constitutional chaos?

Politics / No Comment / September 19, 2014

Even before the final result to the Scottish independence referendum had been declared, David Cameron seized the initiative first thing this morning by proposing devolution for the rest of the UK to settle Tam Dalyell’s decades-old Mid-Lothian question: ‘Why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on legislation concerning England when, post devolution to Edinburgh, the reverse is no longer true?’

This certainly wrong-footed Labour – Ed Milliband could only mutter later about a constitutional convention – and the Liberal Democrats were scarcely even part of the conversation. Ironically, it was an initiative in the mould of Mr Cameron’s ‘big, open and comprehensive’ offer to the LibDems on the morning of the 2010 election that propelled him into Downing Street a few days later.

Yet how did matters ever come to this pass? After an upsurge during the 1970s, Scottish nationalism went into abeyance after devolution failed to be implemented when the Labour government fell in 1979. It regained salience during the 1980s as heavy industry declined and, not least, in the wake of the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland  by the ‘colonial’ Thatcher government. Despite proportional representation, the SNP managed in 2011 to secure a majority in the Scottish Assembly  – the very result that its inclusion in the 1997 devolution settlement was intended to prevent – and began agitating for the referendum that has just been held.

Mr Salmond was allowed to choose the date – yesterday – the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, and the franchise – those resident in Scotland for over a year and, for the first time, 16 year-olds and over – but not Scots born north of the Border who are now resident in England. The question on the ballot paper was also framed to favour his cause: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ rather than ‘Should Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom?’. The vote yesterday almost went his way – opinion polls narrowed dramatically as the date loomed – but it’s possible that some of the antics of his more fanatical supporters, as well as his vague responses to valid questions about the currency that an independent Scotland would use, deterred floating voters.

For their part, the Better Together campaign was uninspiring: the Tories put up the cash and Labour the organisation, it was said, but neither are liked or trusted as they used to be. Alistair Darling, its soporific frontman, was usurped in the final days of the campaign by Gordon Brown, the man who drove the British economy off a cliff in 2008 and set the timetable for The Vow, to which all three party leaders put their names last Sunday. This promises inter alia to maintain a level of public spending per capita in Scotand that continues to be higher than in the rest of the UK. The SNP are now determined to hold them all to their word, as Alex Salmond emphasised as he announced his resignation this afternoon.

Naturally, Tory MPs are not happy and, I must say, nor am I. Whist it’s true that, due to lower population density in the Highlands and islands, it may be more expensive to deliver serivces there, the debate has largely focused on who was going to spend more public money – which we don’t have – on the NHS. In the land that gave birth to Adam Smith and from which entrepreneurs and civil engineeers emigrated to build businesses and bridges around the world, what place now its historical emphasis on prudence, thrift and self-improvement?

So, how this could all play out? Ed Milliband endures recriminations from his party over his lacklustre leadership on this issue but Labour grudgingly gives him a standing ovation at the end of its party conference next week. David Cameron gets a bounce in the polls from his offer but, shortly after the Tory party conference, a bloody nose from the Clacton by-election, in which Douglas Carswell becomes the first elected UKIP MP.

Parliament reconvenes and deliberations start over ‘English votes for English laws’ but deadlock is quickly reached as Labour refuses to contemplate losing its ability to enact social legislation South of the border without the help of Scottish MPs and the LibDems cannot decide who to support: with another coalition in prospect, who is most likely to offer them seats around the next Cabinet table? In all likelihood, then, nothing will be decided before the election in May next year.

Ironically, this scarcely matters, given that some 70% of our laws is now reckoned to originate in Brussels. Until we reclaim the sovereignty of Parliament in Westminster from the EU – and this will entail leaving, given its treaty-enshrined drive towards ever closer union – devolution within the UK will amount to little more than local government reorganisation.

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