In the rarely-spoken-about September referendum, Scotland will vote to stay in the first rank of nations. I have said this on this site before and – notwithstanding the occasional gut-wrenching wobble – maintain that as a conviction. However one way or another, the next couple of Parliaments will most likely see a significant change in the constitutional architectural of central-regional government in the United Kingdom.
If (when) the Scots vote to stay in the UK they will almost certainly be in line for another hefty chunk of powers devolved from Westminster. This has been heavily hinted by the powers that be, and the London-based government, of whatever stripe, would be mad to burnish a sense of grievance and betrayal by not doing so in the aftermath of a Unionist victory.
This concession in turn will further skew the imbalance between a devolved Scotland and a centralised England. That matters critically, because of the significant policy differences that are growing up between the Labour Party and the Conservatives.
Some of these differences are already of consequence without further devolutionary reform. For the purposes of this post I shall limited myself to one area of policy by way of example: education. Now the Labour Party’s views on education are very far removed from the policies of the Tories – hence why I picked it. Labour are hostile to free schools, deeply ambivalent about the academies programme, and inclined against parental choice, all things in which the Conservatives are strongly in favour.
Scotland’s education issues are devolved, so Conservatives have severely limited influence on this. At present Labour has no influence on centrally imposed English education. As a result Conservative policy in the last four years has shaped English education, but not Scottish education.
So far of course you will possibly be mumbling ‘West Lothian Question: same old, same old’, anticipating (correctly) the recurring problem of Celtic MPs voting on English-only issues. But this is not the problem of old, because there has been a paradigm shift in regards to English-only domestic policy – Tory radicalism has forced Labour’s hand.
Furthermore, West Lothian is no longer simply a theoretical/constitutional question, as it was during the Blair years when the government’s majority was so large as to render it irrelevant.
By all estimates the next general election is going to be close. Assuming Labour win (which I happen to think unlikely, based on the current factual matrix) they will most probably only be able to muster a small majority, and it will undoubtedly be dependent upon Welsh and Scottish MPs. In the present Parliament some 67 MPs from those home nations are Labour members, so any Miliband Ministry is almost certainly going to be dependent upon their ilk to rule England.
And even if this doesn’t happen immediately, even if 2015 goes to the blue team, there shall come a point when Labour are once again in power nationally. And it will probably be dependent upon the support of the 60 or so Welsh-Scottish MPs. Would the people, and more importantly the non-Labour political establishment, of England tolerate radical counter-reform of English policy based on such a support base? Highly unlikely.
Unlike in previous periods, the issue is not about high principle, but about Tony Blair’s fangled ‘schoolsnhospitals’, so it has the possibility to engender actual traction, both within the Westminster village and across the South. And with that comes the risk of a messy constitutional reform, done sloppily and in a hurry.
The only feasible alternative is some sort of half-way house of calm reform for English devolution. Unfortunately nobody knows how it could work, because devolution was fundamentally a stupid idea to begin with, ill thought-through and ill-managed.
Elections make some form of crisis or reform probable, increasing to certain over time. The Conservatives and Labour are easily the only two national political parties, but their bases are now geographically situated across the devolutionary split. And the constitutional structures will no longer be able to withstand the strain of a Labour government imposing strong policies on England without an English majority. So some change is coming, probably messy.
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