For the most part, during the independence referendum, I’ve kept it zipped. I didn’t want to be drawn into arguments and there was certainly a feeling of letting the Scots fight it out amongst themselves. I’ve regurgitated other opinions, blogs and editorials, but rarely ventured my own. It didn’t matter that I was half-expecting Alex Salmond to promise unicorns in an independent Scotland – saying so would’ve only caused an argument and, frankly, one I could do without. It’s all about picking your battles wisely. Part of me hoped that Scotland would vote ‘Yes’ and then the horrors of Salmond’s half-truths on currency union, EU membership and endless oil reserves could be exposed. However, this mischievous pixie part of me was beaten by the sensible part that didn’t want to see the break-up of Great Britain just to prove a political point (there were several moments in the campaign when Labour seemed happy to do this though…).
So what now? Somehow we have to forget the animosity of the referendum campaign whilst still taking account of the problems it threw up. The most pressing of these is the so-called ‘devo-max’ proposals which have been bandied around a lot since the ‘No’ campaign started panicking. Fair enough – more powers for Scotland. I don’t deny that it’s a wise move. With the same caveats that others are making plain:
- England and Wales must have their own devolution settlements to match what Scotland gets. At this point, the politicians don’t get to throw a load of powers to Scotland and appease the rest of us with a few paltry changes. Now the campaign is over, we’re through tip-toeing around. This is now our devolution settlement as much as it is Scotland’s.
- Non-English MPs must not be able to vote on English-only legislation. This throws up massive problems for a potential Labour majority in 2015 which may not have the requisite English MPs to pass legislation but, frankly, that’s their problem, not the electorate’s. Imagine being forced to work in tandem with your ‘enemies’ to pass sensible legislation instead of just scoring cheap political points.
- This process cannot be rushed. Gordon Brown came up with this rapid timetable to appease the Scots (and get it all over with before the General Election) but it won’t work like that, not if they’re trying to do it properly and sensibly. It’s not backtracking to slow the process down – we just need to do it right this time or we’ll have the same situation in another ten years or so with one country feeling victimised by the union (and, I suspect, the next time it’ll be the English).
We have the possibility here for massive constitutional reform, beyond anything Nick Clegg tried to do with his silly little proposals for the House of Lords. And, naturally, it throws up far too many issues to discuss here. These are just a few things that spring to mind about devolution now:
- The electorate must have a say on any constitutional changes. Yes, this will slow the process down but, like elected mayors in cities around the UK which were roundly defeated, if the politicos are getting it wrong then they need to be told.
- My personal preference would be for the majority of powers (where possible, of course) to be devolved to regional assemblies following traditionally accepted lines with a few modern adjustments. Yorkshire is one such region which would make an excellent starting-point (but, then, I would say that). The thing about Yorkshire folk, though, is that we have a strong sense of identity which would make a regional assembly for the people, elected by the people, really work in this area. I can’t comment on the strength of regional relationships in the rest of the country.
- As these regional assemblies come into being, we would naturally need fewer MPs at Westminster. Yes, they would still be making decisions on overarching issues but they would have much less responsibility than previous. So that would require coherent and sensible boundary reform. The last attempt was ridiculous, making no reference to our inherent regional connections and just chopping everything up to fit a size. While I agree that constituency size should be roughly equal, it would matter less in a scenario where many powers are devolved to local level.
This is sounding like a lot of work, isn’t it? Which is why it simply cannot be forced through. I know that the traditional parties will resist because it saps their centralised power but that’s just why it’s the right thing to do. No party leader wants to relinquish the power they’ll wield when they get into Downing Street so they’d rather give Scotland a few more powers and just let the rest of us bumble along being ruled by people who have no comprehension of our locality and local lives.
We’ve seen how Scotland can be energised by the possibility of constitutional change. It’s time for the rest of us to get in on the act.