When Scotland voted to reject independence last September many assumed that the union had been saved and the national question settled for at least a generation. But six months on, a debate is raging at Westminster about another issue central to the constitutional settlement: England’s place within the kingdom. This may yet reignite nationalist sentiment across the British Isles in ways that puts the union once more under threat.
David Cameron is largely responsible. Having agreed, along with other party leaders, to give more powers to Scotland on the eve of the referendum, the prime minister then vowed that further devolution north of the border should be accompanied by stronger rights for English MPs to decide “English” legislation.
Coming just ahead of a general election that is likely to be tightly fought, this was always a risky card to play. Britain remains highly centralised and there is certainly a case for pushing powers down from the centre. But by focusing the debate on voting arrangements at Westminster, Mr Cameron has chosen both a dangerous pressure point and one on which his own party does not speak with a single voice. Some of his MPs favour a full-blown English parliament; others prefer a two-tier voting system in the House of Commons; a third group fears that any discrimination at Westminster would lead to separatism by the back door.
William Hague, the Tory leader in the Commons, has been given the unhappy task of squaring these many circles. On Tuesday he unveiled the result of his cogitations. These propose giving English MPs a greater say over all legislation relating to some taxes, education and health — matters where the Scottish parliament has been granted powers. Such legislation would still be voted on by all MPs. However, only English members would get to propose amendments at the committee stage — and to wield a veto.
This is designed to strike a compromise. It throws some red meat to the English nationalists on the Tory backbenches but it also recognises that a more radical move towards an English parliament might threaten the union’s survival. The reality is that his plan is an inept fudge that ought to fail.
Were it implemented, this new dispensation would trigger endless disputes about whether bills were English or not, and whether English MPs had sufficient powers to protect their interests. Some Tory MPs are already complaining that Mr Hague’s plan needs strengthening as it would leave Scottish MPs with the ability to block English legislation — potentially holding a Westminster government to ransom.
Mr Cameron should not have taken the Conservative party down this dangerous road. Conceived with an eye to obtaining party advantage, the Hague plan fails to recognise two fundamental features of the British settlement. The first is that England, because it contains 84 per cent of the UK population, must always show restraint and afford a generous voice to Scotland and the other nations of the UK. The second is that there are few if any items of legislation that are exclusively English. Any measure involving tax, hospitals and schools will inevitably have spillover effects north of the border.
None of the other parties support “English votes for English laws”. So it will only be implemented should the Tories win an outright majority in May. Were that to happen British politics in coming years would be dominated by two fraught issues: the UK’s place in Europe and the future of the union. Constitutionally speaking, Mr Cameron’s second term would be even more of a white knuckle ride than his first.
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