Dear Alex Salmond,
You have played an absolute blinder today. Well done. Anyone who knew anything about Scottish politics warned David Cameron not to interfere in the referendum but he just couldn't help himself. And now he looks to everyone in Scotland like an arrogant fool who thought he could dictate the terms and timing of the referendum on Scottish independence to the Scottish Government. Does he not realise that the Scottish people are sovereign; and that they elected a government to deliver them a referendum; and that the government they chose was yours not his? The Scottish Government may not have the legal authority to hold a binding referendum but it has the moral authority.
Ignore the critics who say that you are frit, those same people deny England a referendum on an English parliament because they know they will lose. You are quite right to wait until 2014 so that Scotland can have a full debate on the pros and cons of independence; so that the Scottish people can see that the Calman proposals in the Scotland Bill are inadequate; so that the Scottish people can see what effect the West Lothian Commission will have on the ability of their MPs to represent them at Westminster; and so that the Scottish people can experience life under austerity Britain, caused by the economic incompetence of Westminster politicians (albeit Scottish ones).
Autumn 2014 is a good date for the independence referendum because in 2014 Scotland plays host to the Ryder Cup and the Commonwealth Games, and celebrates the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, and in all likelihood the Scots will be complaining about the British media's biased coverage of England's World Cup campaign. .
You are also right to prevent Westminster from insisting that the referendum should be a straight YES/NO question on Scottish independence. We all know that the Scottish people would prefer Independence Lite (or Independence in Britain as I prefer to call it) and so, as a party of the people, you should do what you can to ensure that Independence Lite is an option.
Gerry Hassan suggests that Scottish Government should use the following wording for the independence referendum:
Do you authorise the Scottish Government to begin negotiations with the UK Government on Scottish independence?
These are words, according to Hassan, that are easily understood by everyone, with no doubts about what it means that is open to claim or counter-claim. I think he is right, no reasonable person could object. But having secured a mandate from the people to enter into negotiations with Westminster over Scottish independence, it is then possible for the two governments to come up with a bipartisan middle-way that can be put to the Scottish people in a legally binding referendum.
Independence (as was pointed out by DougtheDug on this blog) can be declared by Scotland on a unilateral basis, and there's not a great deal that Westminster can do about it. Whereas the problem with Independence Lite is that it has to come about bilaterally: it has to be offered by Westminster and accepted by Scotland. By using Hassan's suggested question you are more likely to engineer a situation in which both Independence and Independence Lite are on the ballot paper.
I would like you to know that there are a great number of people in England that are cheering you on. It's not only the Scots who feel trapped under the weight of the Imperial Parliament, an increasing number of English people do too. England is not a democracy and it lacks the basic trappings of nationhood: Parliament, Government, anthem, national holiday, etc. The government that we're lumbered with - the UK Government - is incapable of speaking for England; it can speak of England but not for England, the English question is ignored and we're left without a vision of an English future - England unimagined. Regrettably there is no English version of Alex Salmond, there is no politician for whom the interests of England are paramount. It doesn't matter how often we express a desire for an English dimension to governance, we are ignored, and it is the multi-national nature of the UK and the Unionists' desire to retain absolute sovereignty at Westminster that is the main reason preventing them from recognising English popular sovereignty. As an Englishman it makes me ashamed to say that you are the greatest hope for England, but at present you are. And not just England, you have the opportunity to shape the democratic future of the entire UK for the better.
Not that I want to put any greater pressure on you.
Good luck and God speed.
Those members of the Parliament at Westminster who are committed to preserving the United Kingdom have to face a ferociously difficult question. Now that the Scots and Welsh have decided to have devolution, how do we deliver a fair deal for England, and do the best job of preserving the Union.
William Hague has, quite rightly, announced that an incoming Conser-vative government would respect the outcome of the referenda. But Labour's compromise proposals are a consti-tutional mess. They do not solve the so-called West Lothian question, the problem of Scottish MPs voting on matters that solely affect the English, whilst the English MPs cannot vote on similar matters that solely affect the Scots. This treats the English (and to some extent the Welsh) very unfairly.
Nobody should doubt that the English feel as passionately about their country as do the Scots or Welsh. The willingness of the English to subordinate their 'Englishness' to the greater interests of the Union is a measure of the strength of their commitment to that Union, not of any weakness in their love of their own country.
The best demonstration of this is the extent to which the English have been willing to make sacrifices in the interests of the Union. For example, on the basis of population, Scotland has fourteen more MPs than it would have with English-sized constituencies. In terms of public expenditure per head, Wales receives one sixth more money than England, Scotland a fifth more, and Northern Ireland a third more. Neither should the clamouring of the Scottish Nationalists to the contrary confuse us. Even if we, quite wrongly, allocated all the North Sea revenues to Scotland, they would still be receiving a net £6 billion from the English taxpayer. In addition - unlike England - Scotland and Wales have their own Cabinet Minister to represent their own unique interests, as well as all the other Scots and Welsh members that have occupied positions in every Cabinet in modern times.
There are, of course, reasons for these differences, and the English have accepted them because the vast majority place enormous value on the Union. They recognise the energy that the United Kingdom has gained from the amalgamation of the talents of all parts of the Kingdom. They recognise the huge advantage in all areas of endeavour - scientific, literary, military, commercial or political - which arises out of their hybrid vigour. They know that the United Kingdom is very much more than the sum of its parts.
Which is why Labour's proposals are potentially so disastrous. The Govern-ment is meddling with a finely balanced structure, which has historically worked to everybody's advantage. They are taking the risk of starting a process that will unravel the tightly woven fabric of our country. If it goes wrong, this process will be slow at first, but will accelerate under the pressure of the discontent and disunity that devolution will stir up.
The compromises that Labour are putting together to achieve their ends, whilst still maintaining their political advantage, will exacerbate this dis-content. Those Welsh people that want an Assembly will resent the stronger Scottish institution. As for the English, Labour's attempts to provide supposed "fairness" with regional councils is, of course, nonsense. It will not solve the West Lothian question. They will simply create soulless regional bureaucracies; bleak outstations of Brussels.
Nobody could with any serious constitutional sense equate, say, a Yorkshire and Humberside regional council with the Scottish parliament. The constant constitutional mess that we are being offered in exchange for our heritage and history is not going to satisfy anyone.
It is no accident that Labour's proposals fit well with the wishes of the European Commission. In the federalist lexicon, the nation state is seen as the source of many evils, from unemploy-ment to war. Whilst this dogma is unsurprising given the history of some parts of Europe, it is an ideology wholly unsuited to the United Kingdom, a country that has enjoyed hundreds of years of democracy, peace and tolerance under one national government.
The nation state is the strongest manifestation of the democratic will of the people. It is a moral concept, indissolubly tied to the emotional identity of the people, and is not an administrative convenience to suit Labour's apparent urge to bypass Westminster by every means possible.
Accordingly, if this change is inevitable, then the people of England deserve nothing less than equal treatment. And, the people of Britain deserve a constitutional settlement that is at least logical. Otherwise, it will unravel under the pressure of its own inconsistencies.
If each of the other nations of the United Kingdom is going to have its own parliament , then England's choice should be no less. If Labour truly believes that this is the proper future for the people of Scotland and Wales, their logic must mean the same for England. This means equal treatment in all respects. Not just financially, although we should have funding equality for England, Scotland and Wales. Nor just in Westminster representation - although we should have that equalised from the next election, not in fifteen years time as Labour propose.
The people of England deserve no less than the same choice as the peoples of Wales and Scotland last September: a referendum on whether they want a parliament of their own. In their own words, Labour should trust the people - in this case the people of England. An English parliament, on the same basis as the Scottish one, will be the minimum that the English people are likely to be satisfied with.
Anything less will lead to disaffection and discontent, to a belief that the English are being treated as second class citizens in their own land. If Labour wanted to bring about the dissolution of the United Kingdom, that disaffection would be the way to do it.
Lord Forsyth and the Daily Mail suggest that Scottish voters could force AV on the English. The New Statesman disagrees. And David Cameron tells us that the AV referendum won't end the coalition, which suggests that it could.
Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer, 17th April 2011:
The double nightmare scenario for David Cameron is that the result is swung in Scotland and Wales where there is a higher turn-out because the referendum coincides with the elections to the Edinburgh Parliament and Cardiff Assembly. Elements of the Conservative party will go demented with fury if England says no but a Celtic yes vote wins it for AV. The Thatcherite former Scottish secretary, Michael Forsyth, has already described such a outcome as "rigged", which implies he and other Tories might try to resist the introduction of AV on the grounds that the result was not legitimate. One senior Conservative MP on the right predicts that Tories will go "completely mad" if they lose the referendum – to the extent that they might even jeopardise the coalition.
I have sympathy with Forsyth's argument. When it was announced that AV referendum would be held on the same day as Scottish and Welsh national elections, I voiced my protest. But I'm afraid that Forsyth, who opposes any English dimension to politics at Westminster, will be hoist by his own petard if Scottish votes decide the outcome.
Martin Ivens, Sunday Times, 17th April 2011:
On past experience turnout will be dismal, except in Scotland where the vote coincides with a national election. A narrow no vote in England on a low turnout could therefore be overturned north of the border. "That would be a disaster for the Union," warns Forsyth gloomily, adding: "People in England will say their voting system has been changed by votes north of the border, and that the entire referendum has been rigged so that it is held on a date when turnout would be higher in Scotland." But will the English really care milord? We Sassenachs barely squeaked when our wholly separate health and education systems were changed by Scottish MPs' deciding votes.
Martin Ivens is wrong, the English were outraged when Scottish MPs overturned English democracy to change our health and education systems. Outwardly many Tory MPs shared that public outrage but inwardly they were less concerned about democracy, more concerned about the fact that with devolution to Scotland and Wales Labour had managed to retain a disproportionately large numerical Westminster advantage when it came to legislating on English domestic matters. For the general public it was about democracy and fairness, for the Tories it was about partisanship and power.
When the immediate public anger subsided Tory MPs fell silent on the West Lothian Question, it wasn't worth upsetting the Union applecart for a point of democratic principal. Instead - told that they shouldn't 'fan the flames of English nationalism' in the name of democracy and fair funding - they bided their time, and continue to do so to this day. Their timidity was rewarded when the Tories were prevented from exercising power in England, despite a plurailty of votes in England at the 2005 general election. And rewarded again in 2010 when, despite winning a majority of votes in England in the general election, the Tories were prevented from forming a government due to their lack of Scottish and Welsh MPs.
If the Tories now lose the AV referendum because of a West Lothian Question effect, it will be no less than they deserve for failing to represent England. For once I hope that Scottish votes do overturn the result in England, and I hope that the Tory backbench rebellion will fan the flames of English nationalism in spite of their feckless government - it's time that English Tories grew a collective backbone.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon (Independent Labour)
To ask Her Majesty's Government, in light of recent discussions about the status of England within the United Kingdom, what plans they have to set up a constitutional convention to consider the position; and whether they will propose a referendum in England to test support for an English parliament.
Lord McNally (Minister of State, Justice; Liberal Democrat)
My honourable friend the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform informed the other place on 15 December 2010 (Hansard col. 822W) that the Government will make an announcement about our plans to establish a commission to consider the West Lothian question-the term used to sum up existing arrangements which allow MPs representing constituencies from devolved territories to vote on English-only matters.
The Government are giving careful consideration to the timing, composition, scope and remit of the commission. Its work will need to take account of the proposals to reform this House to create a wholly or mainly elected second chamber, the changes being made to the way the other place does business and the amendments to the devolution regimes-for example, in the Scotland Bill presently before Parliament. We have no plans to propose a referendum in England.
The great thing about referendums and being in government is that you can get to choose the things you want to give people a vote on. You can say YES to a referendum on AV that no one gives a crap about and then totally ignore the question of an English Parliament that people do care about. Heck, you can even stick your head in the sand and never even commission an opinion poll on the matter, let alone a referendum.
17% of the British public (British, not English as both Toque and David have pointed out) put a referendum on an English parliament in their top three of issues on which they would like a vote. The weighted Scottish section of the sample was less than 10%of the total. The Welsh part, it’s impossible to calculate as it’s included with the West Midlands. But even so, we must still be looking at figure of below 20% of the English public wanting such a referendum?
Whoa...Steady on there, cowboy. The fact that only 17% of the British public put a referendum on an English parliament in their top three issues does not mean that only 17% of the British public want a referendum on an English parliament.
Only 29% of the Scottish sample put a referendum on Scottish independence in their top three of issues on which they would like a vote.
A previous poll showed that 58% of Scots wanted a referendum on Scottish independence, so all that we can assume from this new poll - if we trust the data - is that about half of those who support a referendum on Scottish independence believe that other issues are more important at the present time (maybe they are hedging their bets because they believe that a referendum on Scottish independence would be lost).
Recent polls have been encouraging for campaigners for an English parliament.
ICM for Power2010 | April 2010
Question: England should have its own parliament with similar powers to those of the Scottish Parliament.
YouGov for the Jury Team | September 2009
Question: Below is a list of policy ideas. Imagine each one was put to the country in a referendum. For each one please say whether you would vote in favour or against each proposal, or if you wouldn't vote at all.
PROPOSAL 11. Setting up an English Parliament to decide matters that affect only England.
Source: Rise like Lions
But if YouGov polling for The Constitution Society is to be believed, a referendum on an English parliament is not a priority for the public. Only 17% of the British public (British, not English) put a referendum on an English parliament in their top three of issues on which they would like a vote.
As David notes, the Government's priorities do not match the priorities of the public:
Given how much of a priority the coalition government is giving to the electoral-reform issue, the fact that half as many Britons want a vote on an English parliament – more than want a vote on fixed-term parliaments or equalising constituency sizes: two more items in the government’s cherished reform programme – suggests that the government ought to give proper consideration to a referendum on an English parliament if it is serious about constitutional reform and about popular participation in decisions of this scope.
The Jury Team commissioned YouGov to discover how people would vote when given the opportunity to do so in various referenda. They found that 60% of people in England were in favour of setting up an English parliament, with only 20% against.
The chart below represents opinion across the whole of Britain, including Scotland where 41% were in favour of an English parliament (2058 adults surveyed in September 2009).
Support for an English parliament is strong. In fact support for an English parliament is stronger than support for the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat parties. And according to the polls conducted by YouGov on behalf of The Jury Team, support for an English Parliament is stronger than support for proportional representation.
Previous polling available here.
It's scenes like this that Gordon Brown wanted to avoid in England.
But in Ireland at least democracy has won through. Tough luck Brown. The EU Constitution is dead, for now.