September 20, 2014
It is a fair rule of thumb that if the defenestrated Michael Gove appears on TV (as he did on Thursday night), it represents a bit of a red flag. If we then have, as we had yesterday, John Redwood blinking into the daylight on Sky News, then that is another red flag. The klaxons sound off. Add in orange flag-wielder Frank Field and we have a full-blown emergency on our hands. Or a “tear-arse panic”, if you prefer.
We’ve just had the most tumultuous democratic event that most British people have experienced in their lifetimes. We’ve just stepped back from the brink of a nightmare. So, I propose some UK-wide community deep breathing exercises. Politicians should get some sleep and calm down.
That very orange flagger, Mr Field, said (I think) that we are in danger of doing constitutional change “on the hoof”. Well, actually all the questions coming up have had commissions looking at them by the shedload since the time of Gladstone. The Barnett Formula has had the Lord Richards Lords select committee and the Steel commission looking at it. The West Lothian question has had the McKay commission looking at it, as stipulated in the coalition agreememt. These are well ploughed fields of thought.
It is not often that the front page of a tabloid paper, and a regional one at that, becomes a major constitutional source document. But the front page of the Daily Record of September 16th has ascended to those rarefied Olympian heights. Oxygen masks are required at One Central Quay, the Daily Record’s Glasgow HQ. I refer to “The Vow” signed by the three main party leaders.
If you read it, it doesn’t promise many hard specifics, with one or two notable exceptions. It promised “extensive new powers” for the Scottish Parliament. That’s quite vague. It assumes the continuation of the Barnett Formula, which is, admittedly, barking mad. (Even Joel Barnett says the formula is “fundamentally flawed“). It says the Scottish Parliament will have the “final say” on NHS spending.
So far so good/bad. And then Cameron ruined the whole thing by talking about “English votes for English laws”. Oh, gor blimey.
The Scottish “vow” needs to be implemented on time. That is non-negotiable. To rat on that vow would be a monumental mistake which would echo down the generations for centuries. (And you would have thought, in Clegg’s case, that he had done enough pledge signing for one lifetime).
I don’t think the West Lothian question can be realistically solved according to the same timetable. I don’t even think it needs to be solved by the same timetable. It would have been solved years ago if it was that simple. (By the way, my view on this conjoins with that of Lord Faulkner who said recently that the best answer to the West Lothian question is to stop asking it.) The McKay commission proposed not banning non-English MPs from voting on English matters. Instead it suggested this:
Decisions taken in the Commons which have a separate and distinct effect for England (or England-and-Wales) should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs sitting for constituencies in England (or England-and-Wales).
…adding this rider:
Our proposals retain the right of a UK-wide majority to make the final decisions where they believe UK interests or those of a part of the UK other than England should prevail. We expect that governments will prefer compromise to conflict.
…A nice big fudge, in other words. But, then, most British constitutional changes are huge fudges. We need more fudge and less ludicrous black/white clarity from the likes of Gove and Redwood.
I suppose, at a stretch, it’s possible that the McKay commission solution could be implemented by the same timetable as “The (Scottish) Vow”. But to try and keep Gove, Redwood, Bone, Hollobone, Laing and Co. happy on the subject at the same time (as Cameron appears to be attempting) is completely insane. We’ll all go down a dark hole and never come back up to breathe fresh air for decades.