September 21, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
I have a feeling that David Cameron might end the next few months wishing that Scotland ahead indeed voted for independence. Having rushed up to Scotland with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to promise the Scottish people that they will be able to have their ‘NO’ cake yet still eat independence in all but name. Having sanctioned Gordon Brown to tell the Scottish people to expect ‘nothing less than a modern form of home rule’, he is now going to find himself sniped from both sides. Alex Salmond has already indicated that he will be biting at Cameron’s heels to deliver what was promised, namely the “Devo-max” option that Salmond had wanted on the referendum ballot paper anyway. Tory MPs, particularly the right-leaning one, have joined Nigel Farage in pointing out to Cameron that every single power he gives to Scotland he will need to give to England too. Somehow he is going to have to use all of his considerable Harry Houdini political skills to wriggle out of this one.
Yet he should never have been in it in the he first place. The panic caused by one Sunday Tomes poll two weeks ago that out the Yes vote 51% ahead caused these almost undeliverable promises to be made. Yet a proper look underneath the polling would have revealed some sub-questions that YouGov had asked that might have relieved their panic.
Firstly, both sets of voters were asked whether they had put a sticker up on their house or on the their car to broadcast their preferences. 70% of Yes voters said They had, only 29% of No voters said they had. The point is that No voters were much more coy about revealing themselves, and this may have been so even to pollsters over the phone. The second sub-question of interest was whether they would be “scared” about the future if the other side won. 48% of Yes voters said Yes to this, but 70% of No voters said Yes. The point here is that this referendum was underpinned by fear, and it was always so that the Yes campaign just couldn’t quell those fears, choosing instead to smear those who dared to point out those fears may be justified. I always felt that those who said “don’t know” to pollsters were No voters afraid to reveal preferences, in part due to the intimidation by Yes voters, but also that once in the ballot box, with just the four walls knowing what they wrote, they might just vote No.
My overall point is that the promises that were made two weeks ago were most probably unnecessary, let alone unconstitutional. Now the party leaders are going to have to justify in Parliament why the Barnett formula, created in the 1970s as a stopgap measure, but now described by Barnett himself as unjustifiable, and which gives the Scots £1600 a head more public spending than the rest of the UK, should continue. He is going to have to persuade them to allow Scotland to have its own tax raising powers, when Scottish MPs will not be able to vote in Scotland but will be able to vote on tax that only affects England (this is the West Lothian question).
As a possible solution, he has talked about letting English MPs vote on English laws, but this is not as simple as one might think. Firstly, it creates two classes of MPs for many votes, which is not how Parliamentary sovereignty should work. But also, when Gladstone tried to do this with Ireland in 1894, it was soon pointed out to him how hard it would be to define what would be an ‘English’ issue, and what would be a ‘UK’ issue. Furthermore, when you make a vote on something in England, it can have cross border implications. An example of this might be that England’s tuition fees has caused more applications to Scottish universities.
Cameron has now set an impossible target, which is to have this almost sorted by January. He is setting up committees and commissions, and to many it seems like he is, by being this unrealistic, effectively kicking the idea into the long grass. Talking of the long grass, Ed Miliband doesn’t even want to discuss all this until next October, which is after the next election. He, of course, is in real trouble if there are a English votes for English laws, as there are 41 Scottish MPs, and he may not be able to carry a majority on any policies in government, nor muster an effective opposition vote, without them.
The extra Scottish powers talked about for the last two weeks were never made conditional on the West Lothian question being solved. Which is why Salmond shouldn’t, and won’t be letting go if any wriggling happens.
All of which would mean I certainly wouldn’t want to be out in David Cameron’s shoes right now.