The Union has survived. After weeks in which it seemed that our country was on the point of break-up, the Scottish people voted decisively to reject nationalism and separation. I was one of millions who breathed a collective sigh of relief as 55% of Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom. I believe that ours is one of the most successful political unions anywhere in the world. To wreck it after 300 years would have been abject folly.
Many people have emerged with their reputations rightly enhanced. Gordon Brown’s eve-of-poll speech was electrifying. He successfully snatched back the saltire from the nationalists and breathed patriotism and passion into the unionist vision. The Prime Minister too deserves immense credit for the courage and judgement he showed in facilitating the referendum in the first place. It was absolutely the right thing to do. As a result Scotland’s place in the union now has a renewed legitimacy that the nationalists had spent so many years trying to undermine.
But with great swathes of new powers heading north of the border (over tax, spending and welfare) the so-called West Lothian question cannot be ducked any longer. That expression, first coined in 1977 by the then MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, refers to the constitutional anomaly of Scottish MPs voting on matters that only affect England. Already, Scottish MPs can vote on the future of the NHS in England despite the fact that health has been fully devolved to Holyrood. In other words, they can vote to make changes that will not affect their constituents at all.
This issue has caused rumblings for some time. As long ago as 1999, William Hague said that ‘English MPs should have exclusive say over English laws’. I should know – I was working in his office as a speechwriter at the time. He pointed out then that unless the problem was addressed it would lead to resentment amongst people in England, which in turn risked unbalancing our United Kingdom.
The position is even more acute now. The fall-out from this referendum means the issue cannot be ignored any longer. If tax-raising powers are to be transferred to the people of Scotland (and I believe the promises made by the Westminster parties should be honoured to the letter) that process must proceed in tandem with moves to restrict Scottish MPs from voting on English matters. To do otherwise would be a travesty of democracy. In short, David Cameron is absolutely right to call for ‘English votes for English laws’.
Labour’s position on this is all too transparent. They fear that the loss of 41 Scottish Labour MPs could leave them unable to govern in England, even if they secure an overall majority in Parliament. But it would be unforgivable to trade a balanced consititution for narrow party advantage. To be fair, there are increasing numbers of Labour MPs who are brave enough to point that out to their leadership and Ed Miliband is now facing an open revolt on the issue.
I am no English nationalist. I am a democrat. But democrats would be wise to heed the words of G.K. Chesterton who said “Smile at us, pass us; but do not quite forget; For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.”
Now is the time for the voice of England to be heard.