Saturday, September 20, 2014

The English Question: Let battle commence

Today's Journal column on the aftermath of the Scottish referendum vote.

AND so….as one of the big arguments in British politics is settled – perhaps for a generation or more – another, potentially even more fractious one begins.

Scotland may have voted no to independence on Thursday by what, in the end, was a bigger-than-expected margin, but the debate over what to do about the ‘English Question’ is only just getting going.

David Cameron will no doubt have been mightily relieved as he appeared on the steps of 10 Downing Street shortly after 7am yesterday to express his delight at the Scots’ decision to stay.

Had the vote gone the other way, the Prime Minister could just as easily have been announcing his resignation, such were the catalogue of tactical blunders which almost led to the break-up of the 307-year-old Union.

But it was not what Mr Cameron said about Scotland yesterday morning than what he said about England that was chiefly of interest in this part of the world - or, more precisely, what he didn’t say.

The morning after the referendum, in an impressive show of unity, The Journal joined together with its traditional rival on the news-stands to demand increased powers and funding for the North of England

Significantly, those now making the case for this also include the Tory MP for Hexham, Guy Opperman, who said on Wednesday that the region must be “first in line” for devolution following the Scottish vote.

But it is far from clear from Mr Cameron’s comments yesterday whether, at this stage, the option of additional powers for England’s cities and regions is even on his radar.

For all his talk of wide-ranging constitutional change, Mr Cameron appears instead to favour a rather minimalist answer to the English Question, namely ‘English votes for English laws.’

This idea, which would essentially bar Scottish MPs from voting on English-only matters at Westminster, was part of the last Tory election manifesto but vetoed by the Lib Dems from inclusion in the Coalition Agreement.

But while this may be the solution favoured by most Tory MPs, it is unlikely to find favour with the Labour Party and will emphatically not address the “democratic deficit” within the English regions.

Indeed, without some corresponding measure of regional devolution, it would leave the North even more at the mercy of domination by London than has hitherto been the case.

The other big point at issue in the fallout from Thursday’s vote will be the future of the Barnett Formula, which still hands Scotland an extra £1,623 in public spending per head than the UK average.

The three main party leaders’ absurd last-minute pledge to continue it in perpetuity will surely - and rightly – be blocked by English backbench MPs.

The formula – as its creator Lord Barnett has long realised – has been out of sync with relative need for many years and is long overdue for abolition.

In any case, a genuine ‘devo max’ settlement for the Scots, with full control over levels of income tax, would surely render the formula unnecessary in the longer run.

But while this vexed issue will doubtless fill many more columns before it has run its course, it would be wrong to conclude this one without some mention of Gordon Brown.

If Mr Cameron, through his initial complacency and inattention to vital details such as the wording of the question, came close to the being the man who lost the union, then his predecessor at No 10 was the one who saved it.

In the closing days of the campaign, the former Prime Minister managed to do what nobody else had managed up to that point – to make a compelling emotional case for Scots to stick with the UK together.

By appealing to traditional Labour values of solidarity and sharing, he managed to stem the haemorrhaging of support to the Yes campaign that had briefly threatened to become an avalanche.

As others have pointed out, it is time for some historical reappraisal of Mr Brown, who as ITN’s Tom Bradby said yesterday, can now credibly claim to have saved both the financial system and the Union.

Tories may deride him as a “failed Prime Minister,” but he was not, he was merely an electorally unsuccessfully one.

It was his great misfortune to get the job in an era where presentational skills had become increasingly important, and sandwiched between two showmen like Tony Blair and Mr Cameron, those were skills he self-evidently lacked.

One thing he has never lacked, though, was passion.  And he certainly put it to very good use in the cause of keeping our country together.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The man who saved the union....and the one who nearly lost it

"Gordon Brown emerged as the only genuine statesman in this whole sorry business. He embodies the very qualities that makes the rest of the world admire the Scots: integrity, decency and an unshakeable belief in the ability of public service to bring about a better society,"

Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror.
"I think history is going to be pretty kind to Gordon Brown, a man who can credibly claim to have saved the financial system and the Union."

ITN political editor Tom Bradby on Twitter

"Even when rumours began flying that it might be a firmer no, you could still find Tory MPs wholly unable to forgive a leader who many feel did too little for too long, before panicking and doing too much too late.

"Cameron has resembled nothing so much as the husband who only remembers his wife’s birthday with minutes to spare, and then chucks a bucketload of cash at the problem while praying she never sees the credit card bill."

Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Barnett calls for his formula to be scrapped (again)

Poor old Joel Barnett.  He would no doubt like to be remembered for being an effective Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Callaghan government and for being, along with his old boss Denis Healey, one of two surviving nonagenarians who served in that administration.

Instead his name is forever linked to the wretched funding formula which he devised in 1978 as a short-term fix and which, 36 years later, still ensures average public spending per head in Scotland is some £1,600 more than in England and Wales.

Barnett has long been embarrassed by his formula and first called for it to be scrapped when appearing before the Treasury Select Committee in 1998.

In 2004, he went further, calling for his name to be taken off it.   This was reported at the time by myself and my then Journal colleague David Higgerson and our story can still be found at an online archive.

Now he has repeated his call in the wake of the absurd pledge by Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to guarantee the formula's survival in perpetuity in the event of a no vote to independence in tomorrow's referendum.

He told The Telegraph: "It is unfair and should be stopped, it is a mistake. This way is terrible and can never be sustainable, it is a national embarrassment and personally embarrassing to me as well."

Lord Barnett is now 90.   Is it too much to hope that he may yet live to see his wish fulfilled?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Barnett Formula pledge is undeliverable and wrong

I was dismayed to read that the party leaders - and Gordon Brown - have pledged to continue the Barnett Formula as part of their three-point 'guarantee' to Scottish voters ahead of Thursday's referendum.

The formula, which gaurantees Scotland a higher level of public spending per head than anywhere else on the British mainland, has been out of sync for many years and, as the former Welsh Secretary John Redwood points out, is particularly unfair to Wales and the Northern English regions which have similar levels of need.

It won't alter my support for the Better Together campaign, but the future funding arrangements for the different parts of the UK need to be based on a new assessment of relative need, not a short-term political fix.

My suspicion is that the pledge will actually be undeliverable.  I can't imagine for a moment that
English MPs will stand for it in the long run, even if they are keeping their mouths firmly shut at the moment for fear of playing into the hands of the Yes campaign.

The politician who should be most ashamed of himself for allowing this absurd pledge to form part of the last-ditch appeal to wavering Scottish voters is Nick Clegg, whose party has previously called for the replacement of Barnett with a needs-based formula.   Given Clegg's track record of U-turning on previous agreed party policy, however, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by this.

In any case, the new powers envisaged for the Scottish Parliament, including the ability to raise their own taxes, ought to enable Scotland to move closer towards financial self-sufficiency rather than continuing to rely on block grants from Westminster.  In this sense, maintaining the Barnett Formula in perpetuity would fly in the face of the moves towards federalism that Gordon and others are now belatedly advocating.

3pm Update:  It seems they are not keeping their mouths shut after all.   I very much fear that the pro-Union campaign is going to fall apart over the next 24 hours as a result of this stupid and unnecessary attempt to bribe the Scots.