Anyone who sees this as more than the mendacious gaming of a deeply unethical government trying to wriggle out of the sacred “vow” they’d made to the Scots two or three days earlier deserves to be hit with a Stupid Stick. In my last post I quoted the words of Prince John (a character we might see as George Osborne to Cameron’s Prince Hal) after his shenanigans at Gaultree Forest: they seem even more apt in the light of subsequent events. In a way, I admire the brazenness of it.
But of course the Tories wouldn’t have been able to seize this initiative had Labour (with a very few exceptions, such as John Prescott) not preferred to leave the question of English representation untouched. The reason they did so is very simple, and equally shameful: because they thought it played to their party advantage to allow Scottish Labour MPs to vote on matters that would exclusively affect England. Even now, I’m seeing people on Facebook discussing how to throw a spanner in the West Lothian works, because – horror of horrors – the English might vote the wrong way if they were given a chance! I’ve nothing but contempt for that attitude. If you want people to vote for you, persuade them that your policies are right - don't stuff the ballot.
That’s not to say there aren’t many, many practical problems, or that Miliband’s “back-of-an-envelope” jibe at Cameron is misplaced; but to be driven by a fear of democracy, as many within Labour palpably are, is low.
In their efforts to justify the status quo, some have pointed out that MPs often vote on matters that don’t directly affect their constituents. Here for example, one writer notes that an MP from Cornwall is able to vote on a proposed railway line that doesn’t go anywhere near the peninsula:
Let's look at the case of George Eustice. George is the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall, a new constituency brought into being during the 2010 election. It's right near the south-western tip of England. Only St Ives and the Scilly Isles are between it and the Celtic Sea. At the end of April this year, MPs voted on the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill in the House of Commons. This is an enabling bill to permit preliminary works on a proposed high speed rail link between London and Birmingham. It's not a high speed rail link to Penryn or Falmouth; it's going to have minimal effect on his constituents. But who walked through the lobbies to vote Aye? George Eustice. And no one, to my knowledge, has raised a peep of protest about that.
What this blogger does not acknowledge (and may not have noticed) is that this is an argument, not against English devolution, but against devolution tout court. Why shouldn't English MPs vote on Scottish matters, since George Eustace can vote on HS2? The argument is exactly the same. And yet this isn’t a writer who’s proposing to repatriate powers from Holyrood to Westminster – not a bit of it. The Labour Party has of course just promised to send a huge amount of power in the opposite direction.
It was Labour, to its credit, that set up the Scottish Parliament, in the idealistic first flush of its 1997 victory. But it was never meant to be a stand-alone measure – indeed, on its own it creates almost as many injustices as it redresses. The House of Lords, regional devolution – there was quite a list – but, like a man who gets bored of DIY easily and litters the house with half-finished jobs, Labour bodged the lot, and abandoned them when it saw shinier things to do, such as kill people in hot climates. And now they’re saying, “Are you on about that damp patch again? A bit of ceiling fungus adds character to the house!”
My guess is that the Tories and Labour will probably agree to a constitutional convention, which will report well after the election, and the recommendations of which no one in power after 2015 will feel bound by. The only question in my mind is how little they will be able to get away with giving to Scotland before that.
As I was driving today I heard a Labour spokesman declare, as an argument against any change to the current arrangements, “I don’t believe in creating different kinds of MP. I believe in one Parliament.” The interviewer neglected to point out that there has been more than one kind of MP, and more than one Parliament, in this country for 15 years now.
But then they were both English, and probably both forgot.