Simon Reevell: A fairer Union with Scotland would be worth fighting for

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THE reason that a majority of the English appear to support Scottish independence is because of the obvious unfairness of the current arrangements.

Consider health and education. Both are devolved and so the Scottish government, as chosen by the Scottish electorate, decide what happens in Scotland.

Fair enough. But then Scottish MPs, also chosen by the Scottish electorate, come to Westminster and vote on what happens in England. Unfair. Sometimes tipping the balance to the disadvantage of England compared to Scotland. Extremely unfair.

And people in England are all too aware of this. When such unfairness is combined with what is widely regarded as an over-generous financial settlement, resentment becomes the order of the day.

There is a name for this problem – the West Lothian question. But, having found a name for it, Parliament has done nothing else for four decades.

The pending vote on Scottish independence means this can’t go on – and the ramifications are enormous.

Why? If the result is pro-independence, then that is the end of Scottish MPs coming to Westminster and much of the unfairness is resolved.

Much, but not all, because the remaining countries of the UK – Wales and Northern Ireland – benefit from devolved powers and that imbalance would still fail to be remedied, but this has never generated the resentment caused by similar arrangements in Scotland.

But what if the outcome of the referendum is “no” to independence? Well, perhaps that is jumping ahead too quickly.

The major political parties are anxious to preserve the Union. Labour because a large number of Scottish MPs would become redundant – literally.

The Tories because… well, why exactly are they against Scottish independence? Rarely in politics is a cause promoted for wholly altruistic reasons but perhaps in the case of the Conservative party this is just that situation. After all, in the short-to-medium term, there is much less chance of a Conservative government with a working majority if Scotland remains part of the UK.

By fighting for the Union when most of the English would apparently not mind showing their passport at Berwick, the Conservative Party risks not only a backlash of ill-feeling towards the Scots but also towards itself because it may be seen as wanting to perpetuate an arrangement which is simply unfair in the minds of so many English voters.

The solution is of course blindingly obvious. Remove the unfairness so that the campaign to maintain the Union is a campaign to maintain an arrangement that is equitable to all.

One way to resolve this apparent conundrum would be to write down on a piece of paper all the powers that have been devolved to Scotland. Underneath that list should be written “Powers for the English Parliament” and below the heading the first list should then be repeated.

Any remaining areas such as foreign policy and defence could then be written under the new heading “UK powers”. They would be the same as the powers that Westminster, rather than Edinburgh, currently exercise on behalf of the people of Scotland.

While this would not necessarily conclude matters, it would achieve more than has been achieved in the four decades since the phrase “the West Lothian question” was first coined.

And this really is in the interests of the Conservative Party. An English Parliament would not be a shoo-in but it would be a good bet for the Conservatives and if the balance was held by the Tories, would a UK government of a different political complexion really be able to set policy in respect of the remaining non-devolved areas, such as the constitution, foreign affairs and defence that was at odds with the views of an English chamber with an electorate of 85 per cent of the UK population?

Politically. the Conservative party should adopt a two-stage approach. Resolve the “West Lothian” question and then push for the Union to remain intact.

If the Union remains, it will do so with the overwhelming support of the English people, relieved that the current unfairness has been resolved and with an English chamber that the Conservatives can use not least to demonstrate how Conservative policies work in England and would likewise work for Scotland.

If the vote is for Scottish independence, the continued progress of the Conservative Party in the North of England, together with the anticipated decline of the Liberal Democrats, bodes well for future elections in what will be the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

* Simon Reevell is the Conservative MP for Dewsbury and a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee.