The aftermath21 September 2014
This time two years ago I was on my way to NZ for the first time, and looking back one of the main reasons I embarked on the whole enterprise was disillusionment with how the UK was run. A few days ago was the Scottish independence referendum, which as far as I am concerned confirmed that UK governance is still as broken as ever. And it is about to get a whole load worse, thanks to a single rushed pledge.
The referendum itselfAlthough the Scottish independence blueprint was really a marketing document than an actual action plan, with an economic case for independence that was basically fiction, I still nevertheless expected the Yes campaign to find ways of wallpapering over these cracks. The No Campaign was based too much on FU&D, which is why the Yes Campaign was able to paint it all as one big bluff, which in itself should be cause for concern. As expected the referendum was really all about Westminster, but it was students as well as pensioners who swung it for the No side.
That pledgeWhen the three party leaders made the pledge on some variant of Devo Max should Scotland vote No, to me it personified all that is wrong with Westminster. It was a panic response and involved making policy on the hoof, leading onto a whole host of issues:
- Difficult to keep
- The Conservative party never liked devolution in the first place, and from the outset getting it passed Conservative backbenchers would be non-trivial. Many of them are utterly livid. As a result, like tuition fees, it could well end up being a pledge that couldn't be kept.
- Moral hazard
- Strategically, it encourages secessionist brinkmanship as a way of getting more resources. Admittadly Wales and Cornwall don't have the same leverage as Scotland to pull it off, but the risk/reward balance is now proven.
- Barnett formula bribe
- Pledging to make the Barnett formula permanent is basically a bribe at the expense of England. While I have seen some articles that present the extra cash Scotland gets as a result of the Barnett Formula as closely approximating the geographical share of North Sea Oil tax receipts, this is the only thing that comes close to justifying the formula continuing, and with the oil fields well past peak this justification will be gone sooner or later.
- West Lothian question
- One of the consequences of giving Scotland more powers is that an increasing portion of the bills that go through Westminster being ones that do not affect Scotland, yet are still voted on by Scottish MPs. In 2004 top-up fees for England & Wales only squeaked through because of Scottish Labour MPs, resulting in much acrimony over Devolution.
England-only votes?Of course the political bickering has already started, and this is what shows how unredeemable Westminster is. For the Conservatives, Scotland is a 59-strong block of MPs that the party is pretty much locked out of, so for them anything that dilutes this is a priority. ConservativeHome's preferred “hard version” of an English parliament involves scrapping Scottish MPs altogether and calls for MSPs to come south for 'federal' business, but critically it does not make allowance for the fact that Scottish delegates would be elected proportionately but English ones won't be.
Labour on the other hand know that anything that is based on a curtailment of Scottish MP voting rights would paralyse any future Labour government that is not the product of a landslide. The only time I recall the Conservative leadership giving parliamentary support to a Labour government was to invade Iraq, so I don't expect an English Conservative majority to give a Labour government an easy time. They are right in suspecting that the Conservatives want to rig reform in their favour, but Labour's response looks too much like trying to kick the whole issue into the long grass. Ed Miliband talks about careful consideration on constitutional settlement, but this was clearly absent when he made the pledge to the Scots.
In the longer-term a federal England is the only sustainable counterbalance to Scottish Devo Max, as English-only sittings don't address the underlying complaint that Westminister & Whitehall themselves need to reform. However without any delegation of taxation powers, federalism is little more than an extra layer of administration. Federalism will also likely lead to pressures for regions to become self-sufficient, which is somewhat problematic given how much of the English economy is concentrated in London, and this particular aspect of autonomy is something that pretty much everywhere else would lobby against. Vested interests all round.