Prime minister David Cameron's response to the result of the Scottish referendum campaign – in which he set out the case for addressing the English question in conjunction with the Scottish one – has injected powerful new territorial dynamics into British politics. But, as he prepares for the final party conference before the election of 2015, Cameron needs to appreciate that these forces have the potential to be as destabilising for the right as they do for the left.
The political damage he has inflicted upon Labour has so far been considerable. Its last conference before the general election next year was overshadowed by the movement of the English question out of the shadows and onto the main political stage. Its English MPs are aghast at the party leadership's insensitivity to the danger that Labour comes to be seen as the party that prioritises Scottish over English voters. And repeated complaints that the Tories are playing politics with the constitution overlook the fact that a commitment to support 'English votes on English laws' (EVoEL) has appeared in Tory manifestos since 2001. It had been increasingly apparent that the Conservative party would seek to address English grievances once the Scottish referendum had passed, not least because of the gradual transformation of rival Ukip into a vehicle for English nationalism.
And yet, while this situation has undoubtedly been of considerable short-term benefit to the Conservative party, the political right also need to develop an appreciation of the dilemmas and complexities attached to the West Lothian question, and to think much more carefully and deeply about its political implications. For, despite first appearances, there is no guarantee that David Cameron will be the primary beneficiary of the dynamics he has put into motion.
Already, the party's leadership has had to make two rather clumsy adjustments to the stance set out by the prime minister during his statement on the morning after the referendum result. First, the implied threat that resolving West Lothian was a condition for the release of the powers promised to Scots in 'the vow' made by the leaders of the Westminster parties in the run-up to the vote, has now been shelved. Delivering to the timetable for draft legislation for Scotland is going to be difficult enough – not least because of differences between the parties on the issue of income tax devolution. But making these negotiations conditional on agreement on the West Lothian question would have made securing swift action almost impossible, which would in turn have risked reigniting nationalist passions in Scotland.
Second, both the prime minister and other senior figures who have spoken out most vocally on this issue have at times been less than clear about what it is that they are advocating. The idea of EVoEL has been advanced as if it is a principle that can and should be straightforwardly enacted at parliament, when in fact there are a number of quite different ways in which it might be introduced.
There is a world of difference between some of these ideas. The kind of quasi English parliament idea which has been developed by John Redwood, among others – which would involve separate sessions of the Commons for English MPs and the prospect of creating a separate English executive authority – has been extensively criticised on the grounds that government at Westminster could well become unworkable if the UK and English executive authorities are led by different parties. This kind of proposal represents a slippery slope towards the creation of an English parliament, and that might well represent the death-knell of the union.
Such thinking is a far cry from the kinds of proposals that the party's leadership has tended to favour since 2001. These include the more modest reforms sketched out by Ken Clarke's democracy taskforce which reported before the last election, and the overlapping, but slightly different, idea of an English grand committee which Sir Malcolm Rifkind has advanced. Cameron initially conveyed the impression that he was envisaging the first, Redwood-style of proposal, but has gradually rowed back towards the kind of reforms which Rifkind and Clarke have advocated.
More generally, his team has come to appreciate that advocating radical constitutional ideas underpinned by a fairly naked transparent partisan interest might well leave the party exposed to the counter-arguments of both Labour and the Lib Dems, and is unlikely to provide the basis for durable and enduring reform. It makes sense therefore to start by urging consideration of the proposals set out in the independent McKay Commission (which reported in March 2013). This report argued for enhanced scrutiny powers for English MPs. These may well turn out to be insufficiently robust for those who want English-only legislation to be passed only when it has the consent of English MPs, but tabling discussion on this basis does not prevent the Tories from insisting that other, stronger options are also tabled.
Importantly, too, those advocating EVoEL need to appreciate that there is much devil in the many procedural details that any of these options imply. There is, for instance, the notoriously tricky question of how exactly English-only legislation is to be delineated, and by whose authority that decision gets made. And there is the even more incendiary question of whether it makes sense to introduce reforms to the Commons while leaving the Lords untouched. In entering this constitutional quagmire, Cameron may well need to draw upon the experience and wisdom of some of the figures who have been thinking about these issues for some while – Clarke and Rifkind most obviously.
But there are also potent political reasons why the Tories would do well to be more cautious and thoughtful than populist and gung-ho. First, Cameron needs to consider how to manage expectations within his own party. Broad-brush promises that imply radical reforms may well excite backbenchers thirsting for a more full-throated advocacy of English grievance. But the kind of policy proposal that would emerge as the basis for cross-party talks may well deflate, rather than meet, these expectations, leaving Cameron exposed to the ire of his right-wing critics and embroiled in an intraparty dispute that would distract attention from the key messages he wants to promote – on the economy above all – in the run-up to the election.
He should consider too whether there is more to be gained from seeking to reassure broadly centrist voters – whom he desperately needs to win over if he is to form a government again in 2015 – that he is not a patsy for right-wing populists, and has the capacity and inclination to set short-term advantage to one side in the name of statesmanship.
Indeed, there may be an even bigger prize looming in the minds of Tory strategists, and this may explain their relative disinterest in details. The hue and cry may in fact ultimately derive from some forward thinking about one potential outcome of the election in 2015, which could see the formation of a Labour or Labour-led government that does not hold a majority of seats in England. If the election produces another hung parliament, the territorial legitimacy of a putative government that has a majority of seats in the UK but lacks a majority of seats in England may come into question. The burden of this might fall upon Nick Clegg, as leader of the Lib Dem party, who may well have to factor into any calculations about a potential coalition with Labour the question of how legitimate such an administration would be in the eyes of the English. Labour, too, should be thinking ahead to such a scenario – securing a cross-party deal on EVoEL may be in its own long-term interests for this reason.
If this is the real point of the current Conservative strategy, its abiding weakness is that it involves stirring up a stew of English grievances and encouraging the expectation that these can somehow be resolved or addressed through constitutional reforms alone. Yet research shows quite clearly that the underlying causes of growing English disenchantment are multiple, and that one of its underlying dynamics is growing discontent with the perceived dominance and wealth of London.
In order to address these kinds of fears, the Tories would need to become far more serious about devolving political power, as well as economic levers, across England. The chancellor has a perfect opportunity to do this in the forthcoming autumn statement, which he has already signalled will offer more infrastructure funding to northern England. And unless they do convince in this regard, Cameron's decision to try to answer the ultimate constitutional examination question – West Lothian – at breakneck speed, may well produce the very consequence he wants to avoid: continued growth in the kinds of disenchantment and alienation that have provided Ukip with such fertile ground.
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