When New Labour signed up to the devolution project for Scotland and Wales, Tony Blair seemed to think he was creating a couple of super county councils which would always be Labour controlled and would kill local Nationalism stone dead.
Those of us with a sense of constitutional history could see from the start that this was bunkum and that his Devolution Acts were not a brake on Nationalism so much as a ratchet. From the beginning the ‘system’ created in 1999 had an enormous flaw – it completely lacked an English dimension. Scottish and Welsh MPs could hold ministerial offices which dealt with solely English concerns but (apart from the anomalous Secretaries of State) they could not have any say in 60% of matters affecting their own constituents. MPs who are not ministers from the devolved countries can and do vote on matters affecting only England, but are unable to vote on most matters affecting the people who elected them. This is really the ‘Westlothian Question’ Tam Dalyell posed in the 1970s. Dalyell’s answer was to vote NO to devolution at all. And that answer was honest and logical.
Faced with four general election defeats in a row between 1979 and 1992, Dalyell’s party changed its tune, under the brief leadership of the Scot, John Smith. Blair was not, I think, ever enamoured of the idea but Labour had signed up to it in order to make common ground with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems and isolate the Tories politically in Scotland and Wales for what they imagined would be their political benefit. And in 1997 it paid off big time, did it not?
From that moment on the problems engendered by the complete failure to address the Westlothian Question began to kick in, especially in Scotland as I always thought they would. Looking at the Stormont experience in Northern Ireland it was plain that the terms of political debate in Scotland would soon cease to resemble those in England altogether. A Nationalist party exploiting and fostering a sense of grievance as well as Salmond and his friends have done would soon see to that. A party regarded as the lunatic fringe by many (and Tartan Tories by Labour) in the 60s got the chance to participate in government and to form a Scottish Executive (which it quickly renamed – unlawfully in my opinion – the Scottish Government).
Now it seems that David Cameron is trying to come to terms with the mess Blair created. An old idea about English Votes for English Laws is being recreated, but these votes are to be proposed by UK ministers (who could be Scottish or Welsh and not supported by the votes of a majority of English constituencies) and taken within the UK Parliament.
Sorry to say it – I see this as a non-starter. The only answer to the Question posed above is for English Laws to be generated in exactly the same way Scottish and Welsh ones are, by an English Parliament or Assembly to which English ministers are responsible within a Federal United Kingdom. Tam Dalyell’s answer would be infinitely preferable to me but I can see quite clearly that reviving the constitutional settlement that worked so well for us between 1707 and 1999 is impossible in the present political climate.
This way we could maintain a Federal Parliament much smaller than the present House of Commons and a genuinely UK government with responsibility for matters that concern us all, including federal taxation defence, foreign affairs, the currency, energy and trade. And a flag law – giving the Union Flag the status the Stars and Stripes has in the USA, to be flown either on its own or alongside the flags of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales but not supplanted by them.