Matthew Flinders: What does Scotland’s vote mean for constitutional reform?

Members of the media  watch Alex Salmond make his statement on TV in the Highland Hall at the Royal Highland Centre
Members of the media watch Alex Salmond make his statement on TV in the Highland Hall at the Royal Highland Centre
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THE Flower of Scotland may well be blooming but a number of thorny issues face the Prime Minister and the leaders of the main parties in the UK.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to a ‘new and fair constitutional settlement’ not just for Scotland but for the whole of the United Kingdom may well reflect the need to think in a joined-up manner about constitutional reform and the devolution of power but the simple rhetoric cannot veil the complexity of the challenges ahead.

Instead of waking up as the Prime Minister who dis-united the UK David Cameron has suddenly emerged as the great reforming Prime Minister. Democracy could not be ducked, hard choices had to be made, democratic pressures vented and now Scotland had clearly spoken in favour of staying in the Union.

But what next?

The status quo is not an option. Rushed commitments were made by all the main parties in the last two weeks, commitment in relation to tax, spending and welfare, and must now be delivered, diluted or derailed. “We have a chance - a great opportunity - to change the way the British people are governed,” the Prime Minister declared with a relieved and somewhat shell-shocked look on his face “Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have a bigger say over theirs.”

But what does this mean?

Two constitutional entrepreneurs have been tasked with answering this question. Lord Smith of Kelvin will lead on the delivery of those commitments that have been made to Scotland, while Richmond MP William Hague becomes (in essence) a new Secretary of State for the Isles with the job of dealing with the English question, the West Lothian question and the ratchet-like demands for more powers from Wales and Northern Ireland.

The scale of this challenge is massive but the coalition Government risks running straight into a constitutional minefield. The Prime Minister said that the question of ‘English votes for English laws’ now required a ‘decisive answer’ and promised a detailed plan by January. But the idea that English MPs should vote ‘separately’ on issues of tax, spending and welfare overlooks the inter-related nature of the British constitution.

As things stand if Labour win the next General Election in May 2015, they may not have a majority of English MPs to enact the policies in their manifesto. Accusations of Tory gerrymandering and a ‘constitutional land grab’ therefore point to a deeper issue in the sense that greater independence for Scotland may well permanently shift the centre of politics in England towards the right.

Ed Miliband spoke just hours after David Cameron’s ‘Downing Street Declaration’ on the future of the constitution but his argument that ‘change begins today’ sounded more like a whimper than the roar of a potential leader who has a vision of a new and revitalized British democracy.

But what are we trying to achieve?

This is the million-dollar question where answers are sparse. The political historian and writer David Marquand once accused New Labour of overseeing a very British constitutional revolution. It was “a revolution of sleepwalkers who don’t know quite where they are going or quite why, but muddle and mess are often the midwives of change’.”, noted Marquand who was MP for the Nottinghamshire seat of Ashfield from 1966 to 1977 before becoming chief advisor to his mentor Roy Jenkins who had been appointed President of the European Commission.

This may well be true but I cannot help but think that Cameron now risks unleashing a constitutional revolution forged upon ridiculously rapid hyper-activism. The timescales set out will bring tears to the eyes of even the driest constitutional anorak – constitutional agreements decided and mapped-out by November with draft legislation published by January 2015.

Such speed brings risks and little time for any public engagement beyond the shallowest tokenism. Breathing new life into politics is not just about institutional reform, the devolution of powers and the creation of new political processes.

As the ‘Yes’ campaign in Scotland illustrated, politics is about belief, and passion and a political culture that is united by a set of shared beliefs and values. These values form the glue that binds society together and prevents a gap emerging between the governors and the governed. The coalition’s constitutional engineers – a ghastly phrase that encapsulates the government’s approach – therefore need to recognize the need for bottom-up reform and engagement that is rooted in communities, families and civil society as a prerequisite to the successful design and implementation of any new settlement. (Of course, there will be no real ‘settlement’ only a temporary resting place).

What should be done?

Scotland has spoken and the rest of the UK has listened. Democracy has triumphed but now is not the time for constitutional hyper-activism. At the very least there is a case for delivering what has been promised to Scotland before then pausing to draw breadth before considering the spillover effects for the rest of the UK. My message to the three main party leaders is therefore clear: a new constitutional settlement cannot be rushed.