Scottish referendum: Can Cameron's constitutional reform plans work?

Policy made on the hoof is rarely good policy

September 19, 2014
Manchester is having its moment; will the rest of the country follow suit?
Manchester is having its moment; will the rest of the country follow suit?

Maybe it was the relatively early hour, or else David Cameron’s naturally dispassionate demeanour, but I couldn’t help thinking that the Prime Minister’s statement on the Scottish referendum in Downing Street this morning fell, as the late Roy Jenkins would have put it, some way “below the level of events.”

There is clearly a tactical dimension to Cameron’s announcement that the “question of English votes for English laws—the so-called West Lothian question—requires a decisive answer.” Of course, there is a constitutional wrinkle here that needs resolving, but Cameron also knows the difficulties that denying Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish the right to vote on English-only legislation will cause Ed Miliband and Labour. As the New Statesman’s George Eaton has argued this morning, doing so “could leave future Labour governments in office but not in power, handing the Conservatives an effective veto.” The Prime Minister also has one eye on Ukip and the Farageiste tendency on his own backbenches, John Redwood prominent among them, who have been calling for the establishment of an English Parliament.

But re-reading Cameron’s statement, I’m struck less by the narrow politics of it than by the sheer scale of the “fair” and “balanced” constitutional settlement he is proposing. He said that the government will “ensure” that the pledge made by the leaders of the three main parties to devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament will be “honoured in full.” It’s only “fair,” he went on, that the devolved institutions in Wales and Northern Ireland should also benefit from expanded powers. And then there was the promise about English votes for English laws.

It’s not at all clear that Cameron will be able to redeem all of these promissory notes, nor that he grasps the magnitude of the proposals he’s been bounced into making in the ten days that have passed since an incendiary YouGov opinion poll in the Sunday Times showed a lead for Yes in the Scottish referendum campaign. Policy made on the hoof—especially when it has such far-reaching constitutional implications—is rarely good or durable policy.

This is a point that the Tory MP Jesse Norman made to my colleague Josh Lowe this morning: “However people’s views may differ on Scotland or the union, constitutional reform must not be rushed. If the brief is drawn relatively narrowly, it is conceivable that the current timetable can be met. But those in charge of working out the settlement must make sure they consult parliament and as wide a range of views as possible among the British people.”

I’m not sure the Cabinet Committee that Cameron says the government will establish to sift the various proposals is what Norman has mind when he talks about consulting “as wide a range of views as possible among the British people.” Some, particularly on the centre-left, argue that a constitutional convention should be called to deliberate on the thoroughgoing reconfiguration of the British state that the Prime Minister appears to have in mind. Nick Pearce and Guy Lodge of IPPR, a thinktank whose work on constitutional questions has had considerable influence on Ed Miliband and others close to the Labour leader (particularly Jon Cruddas, the man responsible for the party’s policy review), say that this shouldn’t take the form of the “usual commission of the great and the good to prescribe the future on high.”

Nor, they argue, should political parties dominate proceedings. “Labour’s deafening silence on the West Lothian question whenever the subject of England is raised… are proof enough that the parties have sectional interests that they cannot easily put aside. It is essential, therefore, to find a mechanism that puts the broader construction of a national interest first.” Pearce and Lodge argue for a constitutional convention with a “strong element of direct citizen participation.” (In evidence submitted last year to the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society explored the possible forms such a convention could take and also looked at the experience of other countries, including Canada and Iceland.)

That’s a challenge to Ed Miliband and Labour. But if “One Nation” politics means anything, then surely it means mobilising and harnessing the democratic energies that the Scottish referendum has unleashed (and not just north of the border, either). The West Lothian question does pose a psephological problem for Labour, and there’s no point denying it. But the growing political momentum behind a rethinking of political sovereignty in this country and, as Pearce and Lodge put it, for a “looser Union… characterized by a further dispersal of power” also offers an opportunity for Miliband.

Some of Miliband’s closest advisers certainly think so. In a fascinating document published last week (which got rather lost in the feverish final week of the referendum campaign), Jon Cruddas and the former academic Jonathan Rutherford set out the “organising principles” that have governed Labour’s policy review. “Devolution” was central among them. “We will share power and responsibility with people,” Cruddas and Rutherford wrote, “to help them them help themselves and shape their services in response to their specific needs.”

And what of the Lib Dems? Nick Clegg said this morning that the Scottish referendum result “marks not only a new chapter for Scotland within the UK, but also wider constitutional reform across the union.” A vote for No, Clegg said, is “clearly not a vote against change.” This used to be the Lib Dems’ terrain, almost exclusively, but, as the Guardian’s Rafael Behr tweeted this morning: “Feel a bit sorry for Lib Dems. They were into Constitutional Reform when it was still playing rooms above pubs. Now gone all stadium rock.”

[UPDATE: As I was about to press "send" on this post, Labour issued a statement calling for a "full Constitutional Convention rooted in our nations and regions, to address the need for further devolution in England and political reform of Westminster." Watch this space.]