Writing in the Guardian last night; Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home; calls for David Cameron to grasp the political bull that is Scottish independence by its metaphorical horns. Montgomerie argues that devolving further powers to Scotland while simultaneously creating an English Parliament, effectively federalizing the UK home nations, would greatly benefit the Conservatives and vanquish any argument Alex Salmond has for Scottish independence.
Montgomerie, former Chief of Staff to Iain Duncan Smith, sees this strategy as a boon to the Conservative Party and right-leaning English voters. However, there are equally powerful reasons for the left to argue for further devolution, especially for those of us outside of England. ‘Devo-plus’, as proposed by the think-tank Reform Scotland, would invest the Holyrood Parliament with enough tax-revenue to fund the entire Scottish budget, as well as greater control over national matters; there is no reason similar powers could not also be devolved to the Welsh Assembly (which is long overdue becoming a full parliament). Devolution has great support in Scotland and Wales (especially in comparison to full independence). Equally, a 2007 poll conducted by BBC Newsnight found 61% support for an English Parliament despite no concrete proposal for how a devolved government would function; additionally, the creation of the London Assembly in 2000 was supported by over two-thirds of voters. Simon Hughes MP, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats also recently called for devolution of powers to the UK’s largest nation. A devolved legislative body in England would end the so-called ‘West Lothian question’, where Scottish and Welsh MPs vote on matters which are devolved to their own respective national legislatures and therefore only take effect in England, such as tuition fee increases and NHS governance.
Hughes is the highest profile politician to have come out in support of a federal UK, but it is the Lib-Dem’s Coalition partners who would benefit most from a separate English legislature. Whilst the Conservatives made significant in-roads into Wales in the 2010 general election, this was consistent with a nationwide swing towards the Tories which was influenced by widespread dissatisfaction with the New Labour government. Left wing parties (Labour, Lib-Dem, Plaid Cymru) in Wales received over 77% of the vote, compared to only 52% in England (this figure includes the Lib-Dems, who are typically more centre-right in the South of England). Conservative support in Scotland is extremely low, controlling only one seat at Westminster and a mere 11% of the Holyrood Parliament. As Montgomerie points out, “it’s sensible that Scotland doesn’t get English Toryism imposed upon it, it’s also right that England can have a majority Conservative government if it votes for it.” While those of us on the left might rue the popularity of the Conservatives in England, it is impossible to deny the cold hard truth that England always swings to the Conservatives and only Welsh and Scottish liberalism results in left-wing UK governments. Though Montgomerie seems to be pitying the put-upon English Tory voter who is left bereft at the provision of services to the poor due to the conniving socialism of Scottish MPs, it is in fact Welsh and Scottish voters who are given shortest shrift by the current system, governed by a party whose support is minimal in one nation and practically non-existent in the other.
As Montgomerie points out, referendums are rarely completely to do with the issues on the ballot sheet. AV was defeated due to Nick Clegg’s unpopularity (as well as ineffectual and inconsistent Labour support for reform) and anger over tuition-fee increases. Alex Salmond is a consummate politician and the date of the referendum has been deliberately chosen to play into anti-government sentiment. If Cameron’s support south of the border is high in 2014, this will drum up support for independence in Scotland as voters seek to avoid another 5 years of Tory rule. If Cameron is truly committed to the Union, he might be wise to sacrifice any dream of a second term; alternatively, he could destroy Salmond’s support by side-stepping independence altogether and giving the Scottish voters what they actually want, full devolution.
Hard lessons were learned in the 1980s in Wales and Scotland about what happens when a Conservative government is in power; as unemployment reaches a 17-year high it seems as if the current Coalition government will be equally destructive. Existing devolution will protect Wales and Scotland to varying degrees from toxic legislation such as the widely-criticized NHS Bill, which Cameron continues to try and salvage. However unpopular the bill is, it is reflective of Tory policies, which are widely supported in England. If England wishes to vote for a Conservative government, it should have Conservative policies, but leave us out of it.