In his latest interventions on the future of the Union, Gordon Brown proposes wider devolution for Scotland than the Conservative-led UK government proposes but less power than the Conservatives recommend for English MPs to vote on English laws, which he seems to believe could be fatal for the future of the Union. Brown has drawn up battle lines to oppose the Hague plan produced yesterday. Brown casts himself as a lone voice in defence of the Union. He dismisses the case that the Hague plan preserves equal status for Scottish MPs where it matters, on the Budget as whole, in terms best explained by fellow Scot Malcolm Rifkind
We will give English MPs the final say over English matters, whilst also helping to ensure that the United Kingdom will survive for many generations to come. The committee stage of parts of bills affecting England only will be considered by MPs representing English (or English and Welsh where applicable) constituencies. After the whole House votes at Report stage, there will be a new ‘Legislative Consent Vote’, which will see a Grand Committee of English or English-and-Welsh MPs voting on whether to veto parts of the Bill affecting their constituents. If they give their consent, the Bill will pass to Third Reading. If they do not, then those parts of the Bill must either see concessions made before a second legislative vote, or see those parts of the Bill dropped.
Predictably the Daily Telegraph supports the Hague plan but there are plenty of Tory MPs who believe it doesn’t give English MPs a strong enough veto and would give the massed ranks of SNP MPs which the latest Ashcroft poll suggests will be elected to the next Parliament, the power to block “English” measures
To appreciate the problem, consider the following scenario. Labour, with a majority in the UK as a whole but not in England, propose a law to restrict bin collections to once a month. English MPs could block such a law from applying to England. But if the Conservatives, with a majority of English MPs, then tried to introduce a Bill guaranteeing weekly bin collections in England, Labour would be allowed to use its UK-wide majority, including Scottish and Welsh MPs, to vote the law down – even though it would not affect those MPs’ constituents. In short, England would still not be self-governing.
This argument is in reality a poor one. It’s government not groups of MPs which proposes the vast majority of legislation. And “English only” laws are few and far between. However it touches many Tory nerves.
Brown ‘s comparisons with the great Home Rule controversy of a century ago is appealing. Then as now he would say, the British government, is sleepwalking its way to disaster. There are basic differences of course. Today’s opposition is not plotting sedition with a Celtic minority. Nor is today’s government dependent for its survival on a Celtic party. But it’s just possible the next one might be.
At the heart of Brown’s case is the belief that the UK national interest should not be exclusively defined in terms of its newly empowered historic constituent parts.
The United Kingdom will hold together only if there are things that we share together – common interests, mutual needs and similar values – that make us want to cooperate. In the modern world, that has to include a willingness to share risks and transfer resources between each other to ease poverty, unemployment and inequality between the regions and nations.
Just when we needed reconciliation, the Conservatives have summarily repudiated the recommendations against Evel by the Smith commission that they appointed only four months ago. If we needed any confirmation of their potentially fatal mistake, it is that Scottish Nationalists who want to break the UK are Evel’s biggest cheer leaders.
If anyone’s interests are under threat, it is not England’s but those of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales that are permanently at risk of being outvoted. And so when one part of the union sends 533 members to parliament and the other parts only 59, 40 and 18 respectively – 117 in all – it is obvious that the rules needed to reassure the minorities are bound to be different from the rules needed to uphold the majority.
There are Irish lessons we should heed. Ronan Fanning’s book The Fatal Path shows how in our policy towards Ireland from 1910 to 1922 party political interests often trumped the national interest. Keeping Ireland in the United Kingdom was neither the first priority of the Asquith government, which was more interested in tactics to maintain itself in government, nor of the Lloyd George coalition, which could do nothing without appeasing extreme elements on the far right.
David Cameron has taken this one stage further. He has put the integrity of the UK second, not to the real needs of England, but to the very vocal demands of Ukip.
Fanning himself recently pointed out the basic flaw in the offer of Home Rule in 1920 – too little too late. Today, does the same apply to Scotland and too much to England?
When the war was over, the British government offered not one but two Home Rule parliaments, one in Dublin and the other in Belfast, under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920; this notwithstanding the fact that the nationalist electorate had disowned the Home Rule party and given Sinn Féin a democratic mandate in the 1918 election. Nor did British ministers have any expectation that Sinn Féin would accept such a niggardly offer. So it came as no surprise when they yet again yielded to violence in the shape of the IRA’s guerilla war and conceded the larger measure of independence embodied in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921.
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