English Votes for English Laws is a path to the break-up the Union unless Cameron can look beyond short-term party interest and call a Constitutional Convention
Superficially, last week’s election result restores a veneer of the old order to British politics. Once again we have a single party in power. The age of endless coalition has not arrived. The status quo has returned.
But look just below the surface and it is obvious that the British political system is completely broken. That is partly the hopeless unrepresentativeness of the results. A party with under 37% of the vote wields 100% of the power – the third time in three elections the Prime Minister is ruling with less than 40% support. UKIP, the Lib Dems and the Greens, with a quarter of the vote between them, got 10 MPs – 1.5% of the total in the House of Commons. The SNP, with less than 5%, took 56 seats.
To pretend this result fairly and adequately reflects the will of the British people is to engage in a wilful and monstrous self-deception. A first past the post system becomes a travesty where there are no longer just two major parties. A highly centralised government becomes a travesty where there no party in the country that can make more than the barest of claims to national representation.
There has been a deepening disillusionment with politics in this country. With so many millions of votes wasted, how can that not deepen profoundly? And that disillusionment insidiously undermines the glue that holds our society together, feeding extremism and disengagement that is deeply unhealthy for our future as a democracy.
The reality is that we face a profound constitutional crisis that demands decisive, rapid and above all non-partisan action. More than any time since 1945 there is a need for politicians to look beyond their narrow party interest and act for the good of the country.
The Scottish question is the most urgent aspect of this crisis. This is what most starkly shows the old constitutional settlement as obviously no longer fit for purpose. But that raises profound questions that affect the whole country and self-evidently cannot be answered by a quick political fix supported by a single party.
It demands a thoughtful, systematic review of the whole British constitution, to find a new settlement that balances devolution across all the different parts of the country with the creation of new political structures to ensure the coherence of the whole.
The good news is that such a settlement is eminently possible. The discussion has bizarrely lurched straight from devolution to possible breakup without considering the wealth of alternatives that could be brought into play. A senate of nations and regions, a written constitution, further devolution to the English regions, greater fiscal autonomy. The UK as a country is not doomed unless it chooses to be.
But the danger of these election results is that they present Cameron with the temptation to do just that – to pretend that normality has been restored and that a stop-gap solution at most will be enough, especially as the end of coalition removes what would have been the greatest lever forcing him to act.
The current Conservative proposal on constitutional reform is deeply short-sighted and partisan. “Scottish votes for Scottish laws, therefore English votes for English laws.” This is school ground logic: when England has 85% of the population and a similar proportion of the spending power, its laws clearly have an impact on the other countries in a way that does not hold so true the other way round. And creating further division by cutting off Scotland from any say in them merely boosts the logic of eventual separation.
And in any case, it should surely be a basic principle that any constitutional change should be done on the basis of a national conversation and as far as possible a national consensus, and that it should seek to create a new stable state that addresses the underlying challenges of devolution and unity – both how to distribute power downwards, and how to keep the right elements in place for national coherence.
EVEL does not fulfil any of those criteria. Its superficial appeal utterly fails to address the current crisis, and instead creates further division.
If he reflects objectively on the question, surely Cameron must be aware of that. And there is a glimmer of hope in the Prime Minister’s promise after the election to work in the interests of the whole nation.
But there is only one key test for that: does he propose a new settlement that actually meets the criteria of creating a federal structure that is viable in the long term – not just of making Tory backbenchers happy.
Because the creeping suspicion must be that the Conservatives are actually quite happy to see the country breakup if saving it means weakening their prospects of holding power. Secretly they know that the UK without Scotland will be a less left-leaning country, and that it will easier for them to dominate it politically.
But with the current government, we are more dependent than ever on the willingness of the Conservatives to put country before party. The future of the UK comes down to one thing: is David Cameron a politician, or is he a statesman? The hand of history is on him.
Guest Blogger: Stephen Carter, Unlock Democracy Council Member