This conference season was meant to be the beginning of the long General Election campaign. An opportunity for each party to start to set out the shape of its offer to the electorate for that crucial vote in eight months time.
Instead, minds couldn’t be further from it – the conferences look set to be dominated by constitutional reform.
The pro-union consensus that briefly existed between the three main parties during the final weeks of the Scottish referendum campaign has not taken long to fall apart.
Two weeks ago, egged on by “man of the moment” Gordon Brown, all the parties rather rashly committed themselves to “Devo Max”, offering the Scots full fiscal autonomy, the power of self government over most of domestic policy and a promise that they would get it faster, without any of the negative consequences of full independence, by voting no.
The problem now is that it seems that in utter desperation to save the Union, no one thought through the consequences of such a significant pledge before making it, and that while agreement could be reached on a headline offer in the heat of battle, there are actually significant differences about how the detail should be delivered and consequences managed.
In addition, and this perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise – it turns out Gordon Brown’s thinking was not exactly in tune with the views of the majority of the English electorate, the representatives of who are only now being asked their opinion, and not all of whom are entirely enamoured by a deal that gives Scotland a lot and nothing to England in return.
For those not following every twist and turn of this saga, the problem with giving the Scottish parliament more power is that it worsens a situation, known as the West Lothian question, by which Scottish MPs in Westminster continue to vote on an increasingly large number of matters that only affect English constituencies. To make this worse, there are circumstances in which a government (probably a Labour government) could be wholly reliant on those Scottish MPs for their majority.
The three party leaders have already set out their opening positions:
Cameron, perhaps still dizzy from his Churchillian moments of oratory during the referendum, lept out of bed the morning after the No victory to make his “Downing Street Declaration”, proclaiming that there must now be English Votes for English Laws if the Scots get more power. This is a solution whereby at Westminster votes would be coded by applicability and voting restricted to MPs representing constituencies that would be actually be affected. This seems straightforward, but sadly it’s not.
Firstly it creates two tiers of MP (or four when you factor in Wales and Northern Ireland). Immediate questions would be asked about the acceptability of a non English MP serving as a minister or on the Select Committee for devolved matters, and from there it is not a huge leap to question the legitimacy of a non English Prime Minister, given much of their agenda would be English domestic legislation.
Secondly, it also creates a situation by which a government would need a double (or quadrouple) majority to govern. In theory one party could hold a majority in England, while another held the majority across the Union. Who then would form the government?
Some in the Conservative party have begun to talk of a fully fledged English Parliament as the answer to these problems, but the practicalities of such an institution and it’s implications for Westminster open up a whole other can of worms, which can be summarised as a lot of cost, for little gain.
Cameron, under pressure from UKIP and the right in his own party initially stressed that that any process of further Scottish devolution would have to be on the same timescale as English reform. Downing Street has since rowed back on this, opening the door to a two stage process.
Labour, aware of some of the problems above, and acutely aware of the consequence for its own ability to hold power without fully functional Scottish MPs, are taking a different position.
Miliband rejects the link between further devolution to Scotland and the need for fundamental change at Westminster. He sees no reason not to proceed with Devo Max immediately as promised, though has been the least generous of the three leaders in terms of how much autonomy over taxation should be granted.
In England he accepts there may need to be a greater role for English MPs in the scrutiny of English only laws, but not in voting power. He has called for a constitutional convention as a means to kick it all into the long – post 2015 – grass, when no doubt he hopes to be in a greater position to control the outcome.
For the Liberal Democrats Clegg (once burned on the pledge front), has also stressed the need to get on with delivering on promises made to the Scots. And the Welsh and Northern Irish for that matter.
In England, Clegg leaves the door open for the greater scrutiny option, but warns that English Votes for English Laws risks dividing the very Union the no campaign just fought to save. He instead sees an enormous opportunity to revitalise local democracy through the introduction of a “statutory presumption” in favour of local government power, enabling “decentralisation on demand” to all local councils.
Clegg also calls for a constitutional convention to oversee the process, on a fixed timetable (to 2017) and a remit that includes Lords reform. He favours inclusion of a citizens’ jury to weaken the control of Westminster self interest in the process.
Constitutional reform is not the sort of thing the British like to rush and any attempt to do so is likely to be punished at the ballot box. It is also best achieved through consensus rather than the domination of one interest over another. There is an immediate need to act on the pledge made to the Scottish electorate. But at the moment it is hard to see how political consensus on reform in England will be met before the election.
So the debate will ensue, and planned or not, constitutional reform may now prove to be more than a distraction from the start of the 2015 General Election campaign, but in fact become the dominant issue of it.
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