At the Centre for Policy Studies yesterday evening Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP gave an unscripted address entitled The Unfinished Business of Devolution. In his wide-ranging remarks he explained why his proposal for an English Grand Committee was superior to that reported to be Ken Clarke's preferred answer to the so-called West Lothian Question. His key messages (not verbatim) are summarised below:
It is wrong to see this as Scotland V England. The "unfinished business of devolution" is more complex than that. Wales and Northern Ireland MPs also have an ability to vote on laws that only apply to the English. When it comes to reviewing the Barnett formula it is important that it is not portrayed as providing justice for England as against Scotland. There should be a more sensitive analysis of how different parts of Scotland and different parts of England need to be treated differently than now. Sir Malcolm contended that, in some respects, the Home Counties have more in common with Edinburgh and Liverpool has more in common with Glasgow.
Devolution has changed a lot but far from everything. At least half of what is relevant to Scotland is still determined by the UK Parliament. Public expenditure, social security, foreign policy, EU policy and immigration are still determined at Westminster. What is more: the UK is not a federal state but power has been devolved - meaning that the Westminster parliament can at any time, in extremis, over-rule Cardiff, Edinburgh or Belfast - or even revoke devolution completely.
Scotland and Wales are not moving remorselessly to independence. Every poll showed that support for independence was in the minority and relatively flat. The SNP are a minority government in Scotland - outnumbered by unionist parties. Scots voted SNP for a variety of reasons last year and in the same way many opponents of the euro voted for Tony Blair in 1997, many opponents of independence voted for the SNP. Alex Salmond knows that his best hope for independence is a breakdown in English-Scottish relations. That is why he opposes proposals like an English Grand Committee because such proposals tackle the injustices that, unmitigated, could eventually produce a breakdown.
The need for an answer to the West Lothian Question is fundamentally about fairness. On at least three issues - tuition fees, hunting and foundation hospitals - England has had laws imposed upon it by MPs from other parts of the UK that were not affected by the legislation in question. In a hung parliament, in particular, these unfairness could become much more serious sources of "hostility" and "bitterness".
An English Parliament would be an unwise over-reaction to the problem. An English Parliament would require an English government and covering 85% of the UK population it could easily become a rival to the UK government - endangering the Union. It would also amount to gross over-government at excessive cost to the taxpayer. [Related video link: Simon Heffer and Iain Dale agree that there should be an English Parliament].
English regional assemblies are also a wrong response. They centralise power away from local councils. Voters don't want them - as the North East referendum showed - often because regional identities are not real to most English people.
It would be wrong to reduce the number of Scottish MPs any further. The number of Scottish MPs - after years of over-representation - is now proportionate to Scotland's share of UK population. Scottish voters should not be under-represented when it comes to their say on issues reserved to Westminster.
What an English Grand Committee would be like. It would meet when the Speaker decreed that legislation introduced by the UK executive would only affect England. It would not introduce its own legislation. The Committee of all MPs from English constituencies would then amend and debate the legislation. A convention would be instituted that would mean that the Commons as a whole could not over-ride the EGR's decisions.
Scottish voters reject the argument that an EGR would weaken the Union. Surveys suggest that Scottish voters accept the West Lothian problem. It is nationalists like Alex Salmond who oppose remedies like this because they want to present the situation falsely - as a choice between the status quo and the end of the United Kingdom. That is not the real choice.
Ken Clarke's idea has two main problems. The EGR is not the only possible solution to this problem but Mr Clarke's reported remedy has two main problems. If the UK Government can decide the composition of the amending committee then it does not address the problem. It is not enough for the committee to have English MPs only if those English MPs are weighted to reflect the UK-wide number of MPs rather than the England-wide number of MPs. There also needs to be the Convention that the whole Commons does not over-ride the decisions of English MPs.
We should not agree to a referendum on Scottish independence. The nationalists would claim just having one at all as a major victory - a sign that there really was a serious risk to the continuation of the Union. And they wouldn't accept a 'no' vote. A process of "neverendums" would begin until the "right result" occured. [Ed: A bit like EU Treaty votes then].