At last, the master plan is nearly complete (fiendish cackle)! Scotland’s reverse take-over of England is now unstoppable. Gordon Brown is Labour leader and will enter Number Ten on Thursday, swathed in plaid, bible in hand, casting out all symbols of English frippery and decadence. Merrie England will be turned into a dour, Scottish workhouse. An end, you might say, of ye olde song.
Broon cronies, led by Alistair Darling, will move into the Treasury to oversee the continuing transfer of English taxes to Scotland and subvert the other great offices of state. Meanwhile, in the wings awaits another perfidious Jock, the LibDem leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, waiting to step in as co-ruler of England, if Brown loses his Commons majority because of an English voter revolt. Yes, it’s a very tartan coup.
Now, you know I’m joking, but a lot of people reading this on the internet won’t be laughing. They are the thousands of irate posters who really believe that English democracy is being extinguished by a Scottish invasion. On the political blogs and websites, from the Guardian’s Comment is Free to the Online Telegraph, there is now a kind of paranoid consensus that a Scottish Raj – as Jeremy Paxman called it – really is taking over.
This paranoia has infected large parts of the metropolitan media. A number of really rather influential people in the London who I have spoken with recently genuinely seem to believe that Scotland is, at best. meddling in English affairs, at worst, staging a kind of constitutional take-over. People I respect tell me that having a Scot in Number Ten is constitutionally untenable because English voters will not have a say in things like health and education in the future Prime Minister’s own constituency. I’ve never actually met any English people who want a say in Kirkcaldy’s schools, but that is what the editorials all claim, so it must be true.
It’s not just the loveable buffons like Boris Johnson who rant against the “brooding Scottish power maniac” about to become PM. Guardian columnists like Simon Jenkins can barely conceal their personal loathing for Gordon Brown – he just doesn’t like his face, as he explained in a lengthy piece on Saturday on “the Brown scowl” – and their conviction that Scotland is somehow stealing English treasure. The Tory leader, David Cameron, is under pressure from his English MPs to drive Scottish MPs out of the voting lobbies on English bills and to scrap the Barnett formula.
Scotland, we are told, is living the life of Reilly – or the life of Roddy – at the English tax-payer’s expense. Now, Gordon Brown attempted to explain, in his News 24 interview last week, that the Scottish budget is finite and that Nationalist policies axing prescription charges or student fees, have to be financed by cuts elsewhere in the Scottish estimates. But the message just doesn’t get through.
So, how is Brown going to deal with southern discomfort? Well, in his News 24 interview of Friday he actually indicated that he was going to answer the West Lothian Question, though few in England seemed to notice0. Speaking about English frustration over devolution, Brown said that. “If there are issues that we have to deal with in the future so that the [English] 85% feel all their concerns have been listened to and addressed then we will do so”. Yesterday in his Manchester speech the Labour leader promised a “new constitutional settlement” which will recognise the English dimension to devolution.
But how? Don’t expect Brown to adopt the slogan of ‘English votes for English laws’, which the Tories have been flirting with since the last election – that would lead to the effective creation of a parliament within a parliament dealing with English legislation. It could mean the writ of the government in Westminster would not run over 5/6ths of Britain.
Alternatively, Brown could set up an English Grand Committee to debate, and even vote on exclusively English legislation – but with the proviso that the decisive final vote has to be made by the House of Commons as a whole. The former Tory Scottish Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has proposed something along these lines. This would be a way of recognising the English dimension while retaining a unitary UK parliament. It would not, however, stop contentious measures such as the 2004 Higher Education Bill, which introduced top up fees, being voted through on the strength of Scottish Labour MP. But it would give a formal voice to specifically English concerns, and concentrate the mind of any government minded to ignore it.
The other response would be to cut the number of Scottish MPs further – say to 30 – so that their influence in Commons votes is reduced. This seems to me the very minimum that Brown could do to address the English question, and it is supported by many constitutional authorities. No one argues that Scots should be driven from Westminster, just that they currently exert a disproporiontate influence. The numbers have already been cut from 72 to 57, as part of the constitutional rebalancing, so why not take it a stage further?
These issues, and of course our old friend the Barnett Formula, will all be raised in Gordon Brown’s constitutional review which he promised yesterday. It will also look at scrapping the Scottish Secretary and introducing a minister of the regions, reforming of the House of Lords, and compiling a written constitution. I can’t for the life of me understand why Labour didn’t announce this new constitutional settlement before, rather than after the Scottish elections. It would have shot a number of nationalist foxes.
It makes a lot of sense to review devolution, a decade after the 1997 referendum, and could have answered the charge that Labour was determined to curb the powers of the Scottish parliament. Brown’s favourite MSP, Wendy Alexander, has now signalled that new powers will be something that is examined in this constitutional process, and Brown will have to look at the question of taxation at least.
But will new a constitutional settlement be enough to calm the Southern brow, extinguish metropolitan paranoia and let Englishmen sleep peacefully in their beds again? I’m not so sure it will. One of the unintended consequences of devolution is that the metropolitan media has largely stopped reporting Scotland, believing perhaps, that it is already a separate country. One senior political writer told me recently about how he was asked by his desk editor for a dateline on his story on the Scottish elections, as if it was a foreign report. London coverage of the new SNP administration has been almost non-existent, apart from the airing of grievances about tuition fees.
So, there will be tears before bed. Perhaps the Telegraph and the Tory party should set up an annual football match with the SNP and the Scottish press. Turn the turf war into a war on the turf. Isn’t that the traditional way we resolve these matters in the UK? It’s just a thought.