As published in The Sunday Times:
Scotland has spoken. Let’s listen to England.
We need a new constitutional deal for all the nations of the UK — including an English parliament.
Scotland may have voted against independence, but the Union will never be the same again. A constitutional settlement that has lasted 300 years, and underpinned the most successful political union in history, has been rejected by a significant part of the electorate.
Unless we deal with the issue with more clarity and intelligence, the proponents of separation will never give up and at some point in the future the United Kingdom will be permanently torn apart.
A large number of “yes” voters still consider the issue to be unresolved. As the Quebec sovereignty movement showed in 1980 and 1995, even a large margin of victory may not prevent the defeated from demanding another vote.
If we are to avoid a repeat referendum, we urgently need a new constitutional settlement. And with the promise of further devolution for Scotland, we have started down a road that will almost certainly lead to an English parliament, an English first minister and an English cabinet.
Both logic and justice demand that the first step in the process, the removal of Scottish MPs’ right to vote on English business, should happen straight away. Morally, it should have happened when the Scottish parliament was first formed. With further devolution, it is no longer acceptable to have Scottish MPs voting on matters that affect England, but with English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs prohibited from voting on matters that affect Scotland. We should exclude Scottish MPs from most legislation, including much of the budget. We should also exclude them from having any say in the settlement negotiations.
No new powers can be transferred to Scotland until we have a complete deal, debated and scrutinised by parliament, for the whole of the UK.
This must be done before the general election. Should Labour form the next government prior to any settlement being reached, the party will do its utmost to delay the loss of its electoral advantage from the Scottish vote. England will never get its democratic rights.
The country’s political leadership has behaved with remarkable carelessness over the interests of the vast majority of the UK in this negotiation. So far our English constituents have been remarkably, and characteristically, tolerant. But that cannot last. Our political leadership would do well to remember the words of GK Chesterton: “Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget; / For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.” If they are forgotten again, they will speak loudly, and soon.
How did we get here? The stages we have gone through are uncannily like the psychologists’ five stages of loss.
First there was a denial that the prospect of Scottish independence was even possible. There was a refusal to contemplate contingency planning. Discussion of a United Kingdom without Scotland was banned in Whitehall. Polls were ignored. Warnings about the disorganised nature of the “no” campaign were dismissed.
This was followed by anger. As it became apparent that there was a genuine risk of the “yes” vote winning the referendum, Alistair Darling was accused of failing to mount an effective campaign. The prime minister was criticised for remaining aloof from the fight to save the Union.
The government then moved seamlessly into panicky and ill-considered bargaining. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and even the former prime minister, Gordon Brown — the man who oversaw Scottish devolution in 1998 and bears a share of the blame for the rise of Scottish nationalism — bribed Scottish voters with the promise of ever-greater variants of devo max.
It is disgraceful that the very people who created this problem are giving away the rights of the kingdom without first consulting either parliament or the people of that kingdom.
Then there was the depression of the final days of campaigning; the tired repetition of failed arguments; the short-tempered violence of some activists.
What we need now is the final stage, acceptance. As a nation, we must accept that the political framework of the United Kingdom is no longer fit for purpose.
This is a crisis, but it is also a great opportunity. I have long taken the view that we need a more federal answer to the Union. There will be a separate English parliament, with an English first minister.
There will still be a UK government, with a UK prime minister, but its powers will be focused on national and international matters, particularly foreign affairs and defence. Domestic matters will largely be under the control of devolved governments.
There would need to be a split among the current ministries of state, with some, such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, remaining as UK-wide institutions, and with others, for example the Home Office and the NHS, becoming “English” institutions. There can be no more false accusations from Scotland that Westminster is putting the Scottish health service at risk.
We will also need to reform the constitutional positions of the House of Commons and the Lords. One proposal would be to mimic the German model, where the lower house would be the representative body of the individual nations or regions while the Lords would become the parliament of the UK.
This does not just go for England. Wales and Northern Ireland must get the same deal, the same autonomy. Reform must be delivered as a whole solution, not piecemeal. Saying that power will be granted to Scotland now, and to the rest of the UK later, is totally unacceptable.
We must tackle this issue head-on, and not shy away from difficult decisions. If we get this right, the death of our old Union can be the birth of a new nation.