Cameron’s can of worms
Demands for English ‘home rule’ and continued agitation for Scottish independence point to a constitutional crisis, argues Eddie Ford
Anyone who hoped that British politics would return to normal after September 18 must be sorely disappointed. True, on paper the ‘no’ campaign won by a relatively comfortable margin of 10 percentage points (leaving aside the paranoid claims of vote-rigging1). Tellingly, 90% of non-Scots residents entitled to vote (most of whom would be English-born) put their cross next to ‘no’ in the referendum - and we discover that the queen “purred down the line” after David Cameron phoned her to tell her the result. But, far from disappearing, the national question has moved centre stage - not just in Scotland, but throughout the UK. The Scottish referendum seems to have resolved very little, if anything, instead of going from a period of uncertainty to a period of stability - as hoped by the establishment - we are now entering a state of flux.
Standing outside Downing Street in the very early hours of September 19, Cameron opened a can of writhing worms with his almost casual remark that the “extensive” new powers effusively promised for Scotland by the mainstream leaders just three days earlier “must take place in tandem with” and “at the same pace” as a new constitutional package that included his back-of-the-envelope plans for ‘English votes for English laws’ that would supposedly tackle once and for all the West Lothian question (ie, the ‘anomaly’ whereby Scottish MPs can vote on matters relating to England at Westminster, whilst English MPs have no say over devolved matters in Scotland and Wales, such as education and health). In other words, Cameron appeared to be suggesting that devo-max for Scotland was conditional upon the cobbling together of such a deal in the halls of Westminster - definitely not as originally agreed. The obvious inference was that Gordon Brown’s “fast-tracked” timetable to draw up and publish draft laws for “nothing less than a modern form of Scottish home rule” by January, presumably delivered by him in good faith, might not actually happen.
At a stroke, Cameron blew aside all the silly talk about how the Scottish referendum would “reinvigorate” politics. Feeling the heat both from his own right wing - and, of course, the UK Independence Party, which has been making hay on the issue - Cameron had no hesitation in playing the English nationalist card. Naturally, Alex Salmond - who surprisingly resigned as SNP leader - was outraged, saying ‘no’ voters had been “tricked” by the “shameless” Westminster elite because it was precisely the avowed timetable for devo-max that had convinced large numbers of wavering Scots to finally vote ‘no’. There is a certain truth to his accusation, but, on the other hand, you could just as well make the case that a section of ‘no’ voters were duped into believing that they were backing the status quo, as that appeared to be how the question was presented on the ballot paper, but they could actually end up with what some have dubbed ‘super-devo-max’.
This serves to illustrate that, contrary to the arguments of many on the left, whether supporting a supposedly socialist ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the referendum was never a simple or straightforward question - a philistine and naive idea, as we in the CPGB always said. Rather, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what exactly? Alex Johnstone, Tory MSP for the North East Scotland region, could not have been more wrong when he said the people of Scotland made a “very definite decision” on September 18. The politics involved are complex, which is the main reason why referenda are so problematic. By dealing with just one issue out of its wider context, they tend to atomise people and obscure what should be fundamental lines of class and democratic demarcation:the very opposite of what we Marxists want.
Referenda are clearly not a properly democratic way of proceeding and foster the sometimes dangerous illusion that people do actually have direct power - which can easily turn to disenchantment when cold reality sets in. Near perfect conditions for all manner of reactionary ideas to flourish - especially nationalism, of course, as we are seeing right now. As internationalists and consistent democrats, we were correct to call for a boycott of the referendum and a pox on both houses.
When the results were announced, Salmond stated that referenda are a “once in a generation” event - implying that the fight for independence now had to be indefinitely deferred. He seems, however, to have shifted his position over the last few days or so. On September 21 he said that another referendum might be “justified” - if, for example, devo-max is not delivered in the way promised - or if the UK left the European Union, which for Salmond would be against the wishes of a majority of the Scottish people. Then in a separate interview he said the break-up of Britain was inevitable, given that the majority of those aged 55 or under voted for independence - the “writing’s on the wall” for the Westminster status quo and we are now just debating the “timescale and the method” of independence.
He also commented, far more controversially, that another referendum might not even be needed, as the Scottish parliament may accrue more and more powers, to the point where you have independence “in all but name”. Similarly, Jim Sillars, former SNP deputy leader, tweeted that nationalists should “assert” a new rule saying Scotland would become independent if separatist parties won a majority of votes and seats at the 2016 Holyrood elections. Scottish nationalism will not go away: it could easily grow over the next few years, getting more militant in its demands. Nicola Sturgeon, the heir apparent to Alex Salmond, might well be tempted to push for another referendum - especially if the opinions polls were indicating a strong nationalist sentiment.
At the same time, we have the distinct prospect that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs will not be allowed to vote on supposedly English matters and possibly become second-class MPs - part of the backlash from the right wing of the Tory Party, which felt that Cameron had made too many concession in the last stages of the campaign: the English are not getting a fair deal. For example, John Redwood crawled out of the woodwork, bitterly complaining that if Scotland is to have more devolved power then England needs its own devolved government to “balance the kingdom”. Spitting resentment, Claire Perry, the rail minister, fulminated about how there will be a “whole raft of goodies on offer” for Scotland that will be “paid for by us south of the border”. Instead, we should stand up for England.
Of course, the three leaders’ September 16 vow for “faster, safer, better change” was a scrambled response to the famous September 6 YouGov poll, which had the pro-independence campaign ahead by 51% to 49% - triggering full-scale panic. The unthinkable suddenly became thinkable. Up until then, senior ‘no’ campaigners had been far more concerned about the size of the victory, wanting to get at least 60% in order to avoid the prospect of another ballot being called within a short time in the event of a close finish. According to one senior business figure who dined with Cameron only two months ago, of all the things in the prime ministerial in-tray, Scotland was “the least of his worries”.
But the YouGov poll shattered the peace. The very thought of losing the campaign and seeing the dissolution of the actually existing UK state terrified the life out of them - you could see the sweat. Prime minister’s question time was cancelled, which normally happens only in time of war or national emergency, and all the leading politicians charged up to this placed called Scotland, which some of them probably needed a map to find - desperately telling the Scots that they can have almost anything they wanted, so long as it was not independence.
On September 24 Cameron hosted a summit of Tory tops at Chequers to discuss how to limit the powers of non-English MPs. Bernard Jenkin, the MP for Harwich and North Essex, called for the UK to become a “federal system” and another attendee, James Wharton, MP for Stockton South, said it was time to recognise that “change in one place has a knock-on effect on others”. The Scottish-born Michael Gove, now the Tory chief whip after doing such an outstanding job as education secretary, announced that Cameron would soon be “spelling out” the way forward. That will enable Westminster to “change how it operates”, so as to make sure that the “interests of English voters are effectively protected” - indeed “enhanced”, he added. Putting his cards straight on the table, the former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, said David Cameron must commit with “real certainty” to a timetable that will deliver “home rule” for England - anything else is not a “desirable outcome”.
One thing that is sure to be looked at again is the McKay commission, published in March 2013 and set up by the government to consider how the Commons might deal with legislation which seemingly affects only part of the UK. It had proposed a “grand committee” comprised solely of English members or, alternatively, if it was a combined English and Welsh bill, solely English and Welsh MPs - and so on - that could amend and return draft legislation before the final vote by all the UK MPs. The resurrected Gordon Brown, credited by many with saving the union by his impassioned “silent no more” Maryhill speech the day before the referendum, has already outlined in his recent book, My Scotland, our Britain: a future worth sharing,2 how there could be an English-only “stage” for legislation in the Commons - pointing out that a previous Labour government had suggested that on the second reading of an English bill, members from England could be outvoted by the rest of the UK: so it would be “standard practice” to have a second vote which would allow a “period of reflection”. This envisages that English members would have some sort of procedure for their views to be distinctly recognised, but in each case the final decision would rest with all MPs in parliament.
The McKay commission, it almost goes without saying, has still not received a full response from the government - confounded about how to define a bill as ‘English’, ‘Scottish’ or UK-wide. However, in light of the devo-max promised to Scotland, the McKay proposals - even ‘McKay-max’ - would almost certainly not be enough to mollify the Tory right wing, and definitely would not please Nigel Farage. Like Jenkin, he has called for a “federal” UK, but also wants a “constitutional convention” to discuss the “future political settlement” in the UK and the immediate scrapping of the ‘Barnett formula’ - the method used to determine the distribution of public spending across the UK (which gives Scots about £1,600 more in funding per head than people in England). Pointedly, Cameron did not recommit himself to the Barnett formula when standing outside Downing Street with his can of worms - even though he “vowed”, along with Miliband and Clegg, that the “final say” on funding for the NHS will lie with the Scottish government.
Meanwhile, on September 19 regional newspapers in northern England united to launch a campaign for greater devolved powers to tackle the “uneven playing field” in the UK - with titles like The Journal, Chronicle, Northern Echo, Gazette, Yorkshire Post, Manchester Evening News, etcall carrying the same front page message - that the north be given “far more control over its own affairs”.
What next? Cameron has been forced to partially backtrack from the idea that devo-max for Scotland must go “in tandem” with English home rule or an English parliament. A Downing Street statement reassured us that that “one is not conditional upon the other” and that the three main parties had made a “clear commitment on further powers”. Ed Miliband, for his part, declared that, “no ifs, no buts”, devo-max would be implemented - whatever happened to the ‘English votes on English laws’ proposals.
Yet, despite that, William Hague insisted on September 22 that the two processes - devolving further powers to Holyrood and examining how to restrict the voting rights of Scottish MPs at Westminster under his committee - should take place “in parallel”: indeed, he went on, the Tories were prepared to “take the fight” to Labour at the general election if no agreement was reached by January on a new UK constitutional settlement that would limit the voting rights of Scottish MPs. In which case, it is a more than legitimate suspicion that the draft rules for Scotland will not be in place by Burns Night - if they ever happen at all this side of the next general election. And if the Tories do actually win the next election, then maybe they will keep getting pushed back and back …
We are now entering uncharted waters, facing a host of potentially bizarre situations. For instance, after the election, Labour might win a majority of MPs, but still be unable to command a majority in the House of Commons on the NHS, etc, if its Scottish MPs are not allowed vote on such matters. And who exactly gets to decide what is an ‘English’ or ‘Scottish’ question?
Just as pertinently, who will Scotland vote for - or punish - if Gordon Brown’s vow to the nation is not fulfilled? Sure, the one remaining Tory MP will get chucked out, but the fate of the 40 Labour MPs is not certain. And the SNP could sweep the board in the 2016 Holyrood elections. After all, the party happily announced on September 22 that more than 18,000 people had joined over the previous three days, lifting its overall membership to a record 43,6443, compared, for example, to Ukip’s 35,000. An overjoyed Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, tweeted that this put the SNP “on course” to overtake the Lib Dems, making it the UK’s third largest party.
Due to the pitiful weakness of the working class movement, it is the forces of nationalism that are benefiting from the September 18 referendum - whether the SNP north of the border or English reaction.
3. The Guardian September 22.