Will Cameron answer the English question?

The promise of greater powers for Scotland means Cameron cannot avoid the issue of English devolutio

David Cameron's offer of further devolution for Scotland hasn't been well received by everyone. In today's Scotsman, the former Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth, one of the Tories' Unionist attack dogs, accuses Cameron of playing into the SNP's hands. He points out, reasonably enough, that Cameron has undermined Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who was elected on a promise of no further devolution, and complains that the PM has allowed the debate to shift from independence to "devo max".

"If this is a tactic, it is a tactic that plays into Alex's hands, because the very last thing he wants is people actually talking about what independence would mean," he says.

But Forsyth doesn't confront the danger that denying Scotland greater powers only increases the attractiveness of independence. If Scots conclude that the only way to achieve fiscal autonomy is to vote Yes to secession, the Union may well be doomed.

It's a risk that ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie recognises in his persuasive piece in today's Guardian. He writes:

[T]he UK will be kept together by ensuring that voters normally get the type of government they vote for. Current arrangements are unsustainable. You can't have responsible government in Holyrood when, as now, MSPs control 60% of public expenditure in Scotland but only raise 6% of tax revenues. Devolution that ensures Scotland has to balance its budget is not another step towards independence but a final step towards a sustainable settlement.

He also urges Cameron to take up the mantle of devolution for England. An English Parliament, as I've argued before, is a non-starter - Westminster would never allow the creation of so powerful a counterweight - but the government could introduce ""English votes for English laws", a reform that would amount to the creation of an English Parliament within Westminster. As Montgomerie writes: "The quid pro quo for introducing devo plus north of the border must be English votes for English laws south of the border." Every Conservative manifesto since devolution has included a pledge to introduce this reform, and a government commission is currently examining the issue.

As Pete Hoskin argues at Coffee House, this is fertile territory for Labour as well as the Tories. The UK is now neither a unitary nor a federal state and its largest constituent group - the English - feels increasingly unrepresented.

But it's not hard to see why Ed Miliband's party remains resistant to English devolution. Deprived of the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs, a future Labour government could struggle to pass contentious legislation. Alternatively, a future Labour opposition could face what Montgomerie calls a Tory "supermajority". Were non-English MPs excluded from voting on devolved issues, the Tories would currently have a majority of 63. For this reason, among others, Labour has already denounced the West Loathian commission as "partisan tinkering with our constitutional fabric".

All of which means the federalist road is Cameron's for the taking.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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