The morning after the night before

Lee Waters says the reaction to Scotland’s No vote shows little sign of encouragement for a stable settlement.

The result, in the end, was clear, thankfully: 55.3% thought the UK was ‘better together’, 44.7% wanted Scotland to be an Independent country.

There will be much analysis of the campaign to come, but this morning the immediate question is: what next?

The Prime Minister has quickly set out the UK Government’s response. He’s promised “a balanced settlement – fair to people in Scotland and importantly to everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well”.

It’s a settlement, however, that will not be addressed on a UK-wide basis.  Carwyn Jones’ prescient calls for a UK-wide Constitutional Convention do not feature in David Cameron’s thinking.  Instead, a cross-party committee is being set-up (including the SNP) under Lord Robert Smith of Kelvin (Chair of energy giant SSE who led Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games organising committee) “to oversee the process to take forward the devolution commitments with powers over tax, spending and welfare all agreed by November and draft legislation published by January”.

Separately a Conservative / Liberal Democrat cabinet committee, led by William Hague, will draw-up plans to the same timetable to address the question of ‘English votes for English laws’ – including the recommendations of the McKay Commission and a announcement in the coming days of “how to empower our great cities”.

What about Wales?  David Cameron said “There are proposals to give the Welsh Government and Assembly more powers. And I want Wales to be at the heart of the debate on how to make our United Kingdom work for all our nations”.

Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb ensured that Wales featured in the PMs statement, but its not yet clear where Wales fits in to the Government’s response. The Wales Bill, enacting some of the recommendations of the first part of the Silk Commission’s report, is currently before Parliament and could yet be amended.

My first reaction is that is looks likely we will repeat the mistakes of the past in crafting an expedient response to pressure. Just as in the 1950s a Scottish Covenant movement and a mass petition for a Parliament for Wales was defused with conceding some change – a Cabinet Minister for Wales in our case – so the pressure for a Parliament for Scotland, and aversion to a ‘democratic deficit’ in Wales, produced a modest devolution settlement in the late 1990s. Both have subsequently developed in response to further pressure, but the absence of a stable settlement has brought the Union to the brink of collapse.

Whilst a 55% vote for Scotland remaining in the UK looks like a show of strength, the Union is far from secure. More than 1.6 million people in Scotland yesterday voted to dissolve the United Kingdom.  The promises that helped to keep them in are the source of growing resentment amongst a considerable number of English MPs, and growing public disquiet.

Respected Conservative commentator Tim Montgomery said on Radio Four’s Today Programme this morning that preventing MPs from outside England from voting on laws that only apply to England would have significant advantages for David Cameron, noting “the chances of English majority rule by the Conservatives are hugely increased”. And it’s a point not lost on Labour

“The Union is secure for now. But a commitment had to be made to give Scotland substantially more powers. That had not been part of the plan at the outset. Anyone who imagines that this referendum has settled the Scottish question for all time will be very disappointed” Prof James Mitchell from Edinburgh University wrote in his analysis this morning.

The greatest pressure on David Cameron is coming from England and Scotland, and it is a political inevitability that the Government will want to defuse the immediate threats. But surely the history of the devolution process since 1945 tells us by now that short-term tactics are not successful in stabilising the Union.  If the Union is to fair and balanced to everyone, as David Cameron said this morning, then a lasting settlement needs to be forged.

“The inclination of the Westminster establishment is to be minimalist and incremental.  The decision has to be maximalist and radical” former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said this morning.

 The early signs are not encouraging.

Lee Waters is Director of the IWA.

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