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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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