So much for ‘The Vow’. Agreed by all three party leaders just a week ago in the spirit of the union together, it is rapidly unravelling in a welter of uncertainty over what the ‘extensive new powers’ for Scotland will be, the timetable for their delivery, and above all by their being linked to party political gaming in Westminster. The Vow commited them keeping Scotland’s current share of public spending, yet the day after the referendum Hague was already saying that with increased devolution the Barnett formula would be ‘less relevant’ over time. There isn’t even agreement on the degree of fiscal powers to be devolved. The timetable is also slipping, with a draft bill to be published in January, but almost certainly no second reading debate before the House is prorogued on 30 March for the general election, so that all the detailed negotiation is postponed till a new government is formed.
But what is really corroding the unionist atmosphere is Cameron’s gratuitous decision, at 7am the next morning just 9 hours after the voting finished, to try to drive through exclusive English rights for MPs with English constituencies as a condition for further devolution to Scotland. There is not a murmur of this in the Vow, and it was brazenly dropped into an already incendiary debate in order to guard Cameron’s flank against UKIP and his own turbulent Tory right-wingers – not a statesmanlike or magnanimous way of healing the nation after the heated divisions of the last few weeks. Unfortunately this is typical of Cameron, not by any standard a conviction politician, but rather one blown about by the shifting power tectonics beneath his feet.
The West Lothian Question is a real one, and there is certainly a good case for changing Commons procedure to ensure that English views are given a more decisive role over purely English matters. But such issues will not be resolved by the PM’s sudden lurch into a parti pris reflex, and what is clearly needed is a constitutional convention as the best means to gain cross-party consensus by carefully considering all the options, including an elected second chamber composed of representatives from all the regions. In particular the convention should heed the advice of the McKay Commission, chaired by a former clerk of the House of Commons, which recommended that decisions bearing specifically on England and Wales should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of English and Welsh MPs, but at the same time no MP should be prevented from voting on any bill and the right of all UK MPs to make all final decisions should be preserved.