Saturday, September 20, 2014

The English Question: Let battle commence

Today's Journal column on the aftermath of the Scottish referendum vote.

AND so….as one of the big arguments in British politics is settled – perhaps for a generation or more – another, potentially even more fractious one begins.

Scotland may have voted no to independence on Thursday by what, in the end, was a bigger-than-expected margin, but the debate over what to do about the ‘English Question’ is only just getting going.

David Cameron will no doubt have been mightily relieved as he appeared on the steps of 10 Downing Street shortly after 7am yesterday to express his delight at the Scots’ decision to stay.

Had the vote gone the other way, the Prime Minister could just as easily have been announcing his resignation, such were the catalogue of tactical blunders which almost led to the break-up of the 307-year-old Union.

But it was not what Mr Cameron said about Scotland yesterday morning than what he said about England that was chiefly of interest in this part of the world - or, more precisely, what he didn’t say.

The morning after the referendum, in an impressive show of unity, The Journal joined together with its traditional rival on the news-stands to demand increased powers and funding for the North of England

Significantly, those now making the case for this also include the Tory MP for Hexham, Guy Opperman, who said on Wednesday that the region must be “first in line” for devolution following the Scottish vote.

But it is far from clear from Mr Cameron’s comments yesterday whether, at this stage, the option of additional powers for England’s cities and regions is even on his radar.

For all his talk of wide-ranging constitutional change, Mr Cameron appears instead to favour a rather minimalist answer to the English Question, namely ‘English votes for English laws.’

This idea, which would essentially bar Scottish MPs from voting on English-only matters at Westminster, was part of the last Tory election manifesto but vetoed by the Lib Dems from inclusion in the Coalition Agreement.

But while this may be the solution favoured by most Tory MPs, it is unlikely to find favour with the Labour Party and will emphatically not address the “democratic deficit” within the English regions.

Indeed, without some corresponding measure of regional devolution, it would leave the North even more at the mercy of domination by London than has hitherto been the case.

The other big point at issue in the fallout from Thursday’s vote will be the future of the Barnett Formula, which still hands Scotland an extra £1,623 in public spending per head than the UK average.

The three main party leaders’ absurd last-minute pledge to continue it in perpetuity will surely - and rightly – be blocked by English backbench MPs.

The formula – as its creator Lord Barnett has long realised – has been out of sync with relative need for many years and is long overdue for abolition.

In any case, a genuine ‘devo max’ settlement for the Scots, with full control over levels of income tax, would surely render the formula unnecessary in the longer run.

But while this vexed issue will doubtless fill many more columns before it has run its course, it would be wrong to conclude this one without some mention of Gordon Brown.

If Mr Cameron, through his initial complacency and inattention to vital details such as the wording of the question, came close to the being the man who lost the union, then his predecessor at No 10 was the one who saved it.

In the closing days of the campaign, the former Prime Minister managed to do what nobody else had managed up to that point – to make a compelling emotional case for Scots to stick with the UK together.

By appealing to traditional Labour values of solidarity and sharing, he managed to stem the haemorrhaging of support to the Yes campaign that had briefly threatened to become an avalanche.

As others have pointed out, it is time for some historical reappraisal of Mr Brown, who as ITN’s Tom Bradby said yesterday, can now credibly claim to have saved both the financial system and the Union.

Tories may deride him as a “failed Prime Minister,” but he was not, he was merely an electorally unsuccessfully one.

It was his great misfortune to get the job in an era where presentational skills had become increasingly important, and sandwiched between two showmen like Tony Blair and Mr Cameron, those were skills he self-evidently lacked.

One thing he has never lacked, though, was passion.  And he certainly put it to very good use in the cause of keeping our country together.

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