The challenges facing GB

William Hague delivered a significant speech at the policy exchange yesterday, ostensibly about the challenges facing Britain, but in reality mostly about Gordon Brown.

It looks as if the Tories have taken the decision to make an issue out of Brown’s constitutional position as a Scottish MP.

there is a part of me which wonders if the Chancellor’s desire to emphasise Britishness is his way of dealing with the West Lothian question.

Now that we have devolution, and the Scottish Parliament has become an established feature of Scottish life, the question still remains. How can the member for Kirkcaldy vote on what is right for the citizens of Kirklees when the citizens of Kirklees no longer have any say over what happens in Kirkcaldy on devolved issues. As the Leader of the Opposition during the debates we had on devolution I feel no pleasure in pointing out that Scottish Labour MPs forcing through changes to England’s laws does not make for a more harmonious and United Kingdom. Anyone who thinks that we can carry on legislating for England in exactly the same way as we did before devolution is clearly living in the past. When even senior Labour backbenchers have begun to recognise this, so should Gordon.

Anyone who imagines that murmuring about Britishness is a substitute for serious and sustained thinking about the West Lothian question is definitely living in the past and is definitely in need of help. In due course, we expect that Ken Clarke’s Democracy Task Force will give the Chancellor some.

This arguably marks a further move towards English nationalism by the Tories, a direction they have been going in since they started calling for English votes on English laws. This makes sense, given that the current partial devolution settlement puts them at a profound, and genuinely unfair, disadvantage.

Their dilemma is that a return to a unitary state would be unacceptable to Scotland, and that other solutions are much more difficult to reconcile with traditional Tory unionism. Hague goes on:

Labour’s constitutional agenda on coming to office was heavily influenced by the anti-British radicalism of thinkers such as Tom Nairn, whose thought permeated the work of groups such as Charter 88 and then found expression in the approach of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Government.

Labour introduced a welcome measure of devolution for Scotland – but without thinking through its ramifications for England and for British unity.

Charter 88 nevertheless welcomed Hague’s speech. Perhaps this reflects the fact that any solution to the West Lothian question of the kind Hague seeks will inevitably promote the Tom Nairn agenda.

Unionists want things to "settle down". But what this already means is some kind of renegotiation of the United Kingdom. They say they want to preserve the latter at all costs. But among these new costs is the participation of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast: no new-union deal can simply be dispensed from Westminster. How could such agreements be reached without recognition of some genuine sovereign rights among the participants? And how can that happen without constitutional entitlement and responsibility? We’re not talking exotic abstractions here. Every other federative or regional-government system in the world has such provisions built in: but, of course, the United Kingdom had to be an exception.

Any new deal to replace the deplorable old treaties will involve pluralism, rather than the monomaniac commandism that seems to be overtaking new Labour. It seems to me that unionists, confederalists and asymmetric gymnasts should all have a stake in this, as well as the nationalists. I happen to believe that independence is the most responsible option, as well as the most likely result. (Tom Nairn, New Statesman, Jan 2000)






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