Before the campaign for an English parliament has time to gather critical mass, its goal may already be achieved. The first vote David Cameron’s government holds on health will be a unique constitutional event: all Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs will be banned from the voting lobbies. There is likely to be no fanfare, no regal presence, no Red Arrows as there were in the modern Scottish Parliament’s first sitting. But the Parliament of England — adjourned in October 1707 — will, in effect, be reconvened.
Little attention has been paid to the emerging English Question which is the flip-side of Scotland’s loosening of its ties with Westminster. There is no particular clamour over it, but there does not need to be. It is Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, who is making the running. The more success he has prosecuting the next stages of his separatist mission, the sooner the flag of St George will fly over Westminster.
The revived sense of Englishness is combined with a sense of injustice. Why should Scottish MPs vote on whether English students pay university top-up fees if English MPs have no say over what happens on Scottish campuses? This is the West Lothian Question in action, an old conundrum that would be resolved by the Tory proposal of ‘English votes for English laws’.
This would change the landscape of Westminster. A small Cameron majority in the Commons would be converted to a safe majority for England alone — encouraging him, naturally, to have an England-focused first term. This would raise the bar for a Labour comeback. Even at the last election, Tory voters outnumbered their Labour counterparts in England. It is the Celtic fringe (and Westminster’s notoriously unfair voting system) which gives Gordon Brown his majority.
What would put rocket boosters under the issue would be reform of England’s financial ties with Scotland. Government figures show a £13 billion annual subsidy from England to Scotland, a figure which Mr Salmond believes is concocted to dampen demand for independence. Scotland, he argues, is really subsidising England. He wants Scotland’s budget to be limited to what it raises in tax, after cutting a deal over North Sea oil. It could be a tremendous deal for whichever country turns out to be right.
All this excites some Tories, who believe Mr Salmond is making an offer a Tory government should not refuse. ‘If we’d have proposed cutting Scotland loose five years ago, we would have been accused of leaving it to the wolves,’ one shadow minister told me. ‘Salmond is stupid enough to see this as emancipation, so let’s do it.’ He added that his favoured policy was ‘lining the Tweed with explosives and floating Scotland off towards Iceland’ — but that fiscal autonomy was ‘the next best thing’. The idea also chimes with the Liberal Democrats’ proposals for ‘fiscal federalism’.
A fiscally autonomous England would be much more manageable. Scotland’s welfare problem is more deeply ingrained and its slow rate of economic growth has dragged down the British growth rate for 13 of the last 15 years. The proceeds of this higher growth could be used to better distribute funds within England. By happy coincidence for Mr Cameron, this would most likely lead to the channelling of funds to the Midlands and the North-east — precisely where the Tories need to widen and harden their support.
Much rot is spoken about the Barnett Formula, which is used today to divide up the state spending cake around the United Kingdom. It is not (as Mr Brown misleadingly claims) a ‘needs-based’ formula. It is an anachronism, designed by Lord Barnett (chief secretary to the Treasury in the Callaghan government) to eradicate what he saw as Scotland’s unjustified spending advantage which stands at 20 per cent more per head. A Tory Englishness strategy could include an Australian-style system of dividing funds by need. Campaigners in the North-east have wanted such a system for years. It would give them a reason to vote Conservative.
Of course, the very idea of an ‘England strategy’ jars with those Conservatives who believe Britishness to be in the DNA of the party — the Conservative and Unionist party, as some of them still pointedly call it. Liam Fox flies a Union flag in the back garden of his house in Somerset (and has matching cuff-links). George Osborne also considers the Tories to be Britain’s party, and believes it has a duty not to give up on Scotland even if there is almost no political capital left in the country. If Basque-style financial independence is granted to Scotland, such Conservatives argue, would that not just be a step towards the end of Britain?
But Mr Cameron sees the realpolitik of what lies ahead. It is the Scottish and Welsh electorates that have decided more or less to expel the Tory party from their borders. He would have happily hived off the Scottish Tories last year, as I disclosed at the time, had they not protested. If there is a dog whistle blown in the next election campaign, it will concern Mr Cameron’s credentials as an Englishman. The contest might yet be turned into a story of the sons of John Bull, Mr Cameron and George Osborne, against Mr Brown and Alistair Darling — a duo already dubbed the ‘McBottle Brothers’ in the Sun.
New political currents are flowing in this direction. Londoners turning on the evening television news last Friday would have seen an impassioned broadcast by the English Democrat party’s mayoral candidate, Matt O’Connor. He denounced Ken Livingstone as the stooge of a ‘Scottish-run government’ which apparently ‘rules over our capital with an iron fist’. He referred to the Prime Minister as ‘Gordon, “I’m all right, Jock” Brown’. He asked: ‘Why is it that students in Gordon Brown’s constituency do not pay university fees, but students in London do?’
This last question is precisely the one Mr Salmond wants raised. He is pursuing what one of his advisers once described to me as ‘Operation Rile The Daily Mail.’ This means flaunting Scotland’s spending advantage, splashing out on drugs not available south of the border and generally trying the patience of Middle England. His strategy is not to provoke nationalism, but to offend a sense of English fairness.
The intellectual case for English independence was made powerfully some years ago by Simon Heffer in his prescient book Nor Shall My Sword. The cause might not drive many people to march on the streets; and the Union of 1707 may never be formally torn up as a result of a popular uprising on either side of the border. The greater risk is that it unravels in slow motion — not as a result of Scottish fervour, but English indifference.