Yes voters wary of Cameron’s ‘Evel’ tack
Old resentments are being fuelled in Scotland
David Cameron has no hope of getting any credit while it’s a win-win situation for Alex Salmond. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/Getty Images
Before last week, a reference to “the 45” in Scotland would have evoked thoughts of the Jacobite cause that died on the field of Culloden in 1745, the last pitched battle on British soil.
Since Friday, however, “the 45” means something else: the 44.7 per cent who voted last week in favour of Scottish independence. Badges are being made, and icons shared on social media.
Just before the referendum, fearing that Scotland would vote Yes, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg pledged that Scots would get more powers if they rejected independence.Shortly after 7am on Friday, Cameron changed the ground rules, saying that Scottish devolution would go ahead, but only “in tandem with” greater influence for England. Dubbed “English votes for English laws” – already the shorthand is “Evel” – Cameron’s declaration fed into Scotland’s rich well of grievance.
Led by Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, who has played the politics of division at every turn since Friday, large numbers of Scots, even some No voters, are now convinced of Albion’s perfidy.
In reality, Cameron appears to be not guilty on that charge, but “the vow” agreed at the last moment with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg was threadbare in its detail.
However, Cameron’s linkage of Scottish and English devolution was incredibly cackhanded, particularly when it emerged that his early-morning démarche was backed by no plan and very little thought.
Already, No 10 Downing Street is perceived to be backtracking, though it insists that extra Scottish powers, which “the vow” agreed would be granted in a ready-to-go Bill in six months, will proceed on the original schedule,
Whatever happens, Cameron has no hope of getting any credit – unlikely anyway because of Scottish antipathy to the Conservatives – for honouring his pre-referendum vow.
For Alex Salmond, the situation is a win-win, as he can exploit London’s dithering while claiming later that the extra powers, when they come, have done so only because of Scottish National Party pressure.
The British leader of the house William Hague has been told to draw up plans that exclude Scottish MPs, but also those from Wales and Northern Ireland, from voting on English-only legislation.This issue, dubbed the West Lothian question in the 1970s, has featured in Westminster debate for nearly 130 years.
In 1886, British MPs sought to exclude Irish MPs during the debate about the first Home Rule Bill. Ten years later, it was argued that they should vote only vote on UK-wide laws. Again, that was dropped.
In the 1960s, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson protested when Unionist MPs backed Conservative opposition to his plans to nationalise the steel industry, even though Northern Ireland did not have a steel plant. “Every [MP] is equal with every other member of the House of Commons, and all of us will speak on all subjects,” protested the Conservative shadow attorney general, Peter Thorneycroft.
Wilson, who was dependent on Scottish Labour MPs for his Commons majority, did not pursue the matter once his majority increased in 1966.
The West Lothian question is not simple, however, which is why it has been left unresolved for so long, though a solution has become more urgent since devolution was granted to Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
Some English decisions affect everybody. “If English MPs privatised the NHS in England, that would reduce the block grant everyone else gets,” Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones told The Irish Times.
Welsh Conservative MP Glyn Davies, meanwhile, said that his Montgomeryshire constituents had to cross the border into England every time they needed to go to a hospital. “It would be ludicrous that I should not be involved in any debate about the NHS in England. We may need to have categories of MPs,” he said.
Meanwhile, Labour insists that changes in England would require a constitutional convention, one that would take months, if not years.
Ed Miliband, however, has difficulties. Cameron’s move is brilliant short-term politics if seen solely through an English prism, since it raises questions about Labour’s loyalty to English voters. Miliband cannot let those questions bed in, but, equally, he cannot be seen in Scotland as being culpable for even a day’s delay in extra powers for Edinburgh.
Currently, Scotland supplies 41 of Labour’s MPs, though Labour’s ability to hold onto to them in next year’s general election is more in doubt than ever before.