It’s the English question now, stupid

The Scottish media were a PhD dissertation about chippiness all unto themselves,” reflected Mr Blair in his memoirs, the Times editorial (£) recalled. By those standards, it seems Dave’s nervous apologia for the Union in Edinburgh fitted the bill after all, presentation wise. Substance was more problematical. In the Times (£) the august Scots unionist Magnus Linklater, conscious of every kink in the Scottish soul saw the problem of staying schtum for two whole years about devo max or (devo more.)

It was when Mr Cameron came to the political punchline that the melody wavered. Devolution, he said, “doesn’t have to be the end of the road.” Things “can be improved further.” And that means “considering what further powers could be devolved.”

This, of course, is what the majority of Scots want, and what poll after poll suggests is needed. But when he added “that must be a question for after the referendum,” he introduced a fatal element of doubt.

That referendum, after all, is not due to be held for two and a half years, if Alex Salmond remains true to his word.

Two and a half years of not knowing what the coalition government intends to offer? That hardly sounds like the clarity that Mr Cameron keeps on asking for.

When a couple contemplates divorce after long years spent together, the thing they are most likely to fall out over is money. Mr Cameron has set his face against “separation” (a word detested by the Nationalist.) He wants us to stay together for the sake of the children, and he says that if we do, then we will all be better off. That may be so, but we need to know what being better off actually means. Just saying “we’re all in this together” is no longer good enough.

Adds later.. This is precisely right.  The leading psephologist John Curtice agreed and identfied the gap in Cameron’s understanding on the Scottish identity.

…. the Unionist campaign cannot simply exhort the virtues of the UK as a whole. Rather it has to appeal to Scots’ distinctive sense of identity and demonstrate how their interests would be promoted effectively within the Union. Unionists need to be willing to wrap themselves in the Saltire as well as the Union Flag.

He gave us very little idea of how the Union would ensure that Scotland would be stronger, safer and richer in the future as opposed to what it might have delivered in the past.

One potential Unionist vision of the future that could appeal to Scots’ distinctive sense of identity would be a proposal for how the apparent aspiration of most Scots for a more powerful Scottish Parliament, if not necessarily independence, might be satisfied.

Indeed. But might this  vision translate into a  last ditch effort to save the Union  at the cost of an English backlash?  The reasons for Cameron’s reticence surfaced immediately. The Conservative and Lib Dem ranks and files are split over the extent of devolution they’re prepared to grant Scotland and the leadership are moving to reconcile them, as the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy noticed at Nick Clegg’s appearance before the Lords Constitution Committee three weeks ago when the main subject was Lords reform.

 Questioned by the Conservative former Welsh Secretary, Lord Crickhowell, the DPM agreed that what was needed was a UK-wide conversation rather than the piecemeal passing out of powers to Scotland, or Wales or Northern Ireland, without regard to the overall UK picture – hinting that a wider devolutionary settlement might eventually be needed.

This is the view the Lords constitution committee adopted today.

The committee found an option of “devolution max”, giving more tax powers to Holyrood, would set up “competing” systems within the UK…It raised doubts over whether Scotland should be allowed to make such a move. The peers also said: “Proper constitutional process requires that negotiations involving all parts of the United Kingdom precede any referendum on an agreed scheme of ‘devolution max’.”

In fact devo max for Scotland raises a whole mare’s nest of UK wide political and constitutional issues. Competing corporation tax levels would be but one of them ( and Northern Ireland’s bid remains in limbo by the way –see Devolution Matters.) Another beloved of the Conservative right is the West Lothian Question – Scottish MPs voting on English laws that don’t affect them. And if Holyrood were to win full or near full taxation and welfare powers the English clamour would become deafening.  Acute enough for a Conservative led coalition, a constitutional crisis could well follow if a future Labour government depended on Scottish MPs  to impose higher taxes on the English. This could only boost the cause of Scottish separation on both sides of the border.

So now the  West Lothian or English question may have to be answered alongside devo max for Scotland. Cameron may need those two years after all.  It is as true today as when GK Chesterton wrote it:  the people of  England have not spoken yet, not manyof them anyway, but they’re getting restive.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London