Ed Jacobs presents the Week Outside Westminster: The West Lothian question, Scottish independence, United unionism, and a Welsh National Party.
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Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper this week announced the establishment of a commission to address the West Lothian question, opening a can of worms over the future of the UK constitution.
Writing of the announcement, IPPR director Nick Pearce explained:
“English votes on English laws (EVOEL), which would bar Scottish MPs from voting on English matters, sounds like a seductively simple solution to the West Lothian anomaly, but as Gladstone discovered during the Irish home rule debates of the 19th century, it is notoriously difficult to make work in practice.
“In 1964 and February 1974, UK Labour governments were formed despite the Conservatives holding a majority of English seats.
“Under EVOEL such governments would be unable to legislate for English domestic policy.
“It has often been argued that such chaos would create a greater constitutional anomaly than that generated by West Lothian itself.”
The ongoing debate over Scottish independence rumbled on as the Sunday Telegraph released polling showing English voters were more supportive than the Scots about the idea of independence; a date was set for a meeting between Alex Salmond and Scottish secretary Michael Moore and the SNP officially rejected suggestions that ex-pat Scots should have a vote in the referendum.
News however that unemployment across Scotland has increased by 19,000 and growth was just half a per cent in the third quarter of 2011 concentrated minds on the substance of the issue, namely the impact independence would have on the Scottish economy.
Looking ahead to the publication next Wednesday of the Scottish government’s consultation document on a referendum, Eddie Barnes, political editor of the Scotsman, argued:
“While the political class in Scotland has spent the last week poring over the minutiae of the referendum and the relative merits of devo-more, devo-plus and devo-max, the reality of the flatlining economy is still the main issue for most voters.
“The SNP knows this well. And it knows it cannot make the case for independence without aligning it alongside peoples’ real lives. So it has made crystal clear, internally and externally, that the economy has to be the central argument. So the GDP figures, out on Mr Salmond’s big day, may serve the SNP’s purpose.
“Against the prospect of a flatlining Britain, the First Minister can be expected to conjure up his usual alluring message of how Scotland can, with independence, go its own way and prosper.
“For the SNP’s opponents, this is a battleground they appear to fancy. The SNP may want to focus on pound-in-your-pocket arguments. Their opponents will respond by warning that if the SNP get their way, that pound could end up being a euro.
“The thorny issues of an independent Scotland’s currency and the economic handcuffs the country would still have to wear, independence or not, offer them rich pickings.
“But SNP figures claim to be entirely untroubled. People, they say, just see these attacks as the usual noise that goes with the territory whenever the words “Scotland” and “independence” are raised.
““If anything the negative attacks serve to undermine voters’ trust in those making them,” claims one senior SNP adviser.
That all has a ring of truth. In former times, it was fear of the cost of independence which proved the SNP’s Achilles heel. But, as Britain continues its long march into austerity, it is clear that the old assumptions – like so many others than existed pre-crunch – may no longer apply.”
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, meanwhile, formally launched the government’s plans for a single police and fire services across Scotland, declaring:
“The stark reality is that budget cuts from Westminster will devastate our excellent frontline services if we don’t act now. This government will not be complacent, we will not compromise on public safety and we will make sure that every community is served and served well.”
A spokesperson for UNISON however had a warning over potential job losses, telling the Daily Record:
“We have either already lost or are about to lose 450 civilian staff, so perhaps the same number again will be under threat as a result of efficiencies. But that’s a guess. No one has a clue because we don’t know yet how the new single force will operate.”
First minister and DUP leader, Peter Robinson, used an interview with UTV on the threat posed to the Union by the SNP to advance a case for the DUP and UPP to merge.
Calling for the two parties to “uphold the integrity of the United Kingdom” he continued:
“We are in a year when we are looking back to the centenary of the signing of the covenant and the cohesiveness that there was within the unionist community at that time.
“I would like to see that coming about again. I think you probably will have noted that over the last number of months, some of the heat that there has been in the exchanges between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists has now been removed and there is a much improved relationship. I hope we can build on that.”
Finance minister Sammy Wilson, meanwhile, used an interview with BBC Radio Ulster to tell unions warning about future public sector job losses to “shut up”. He did so as figures from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions pointed to Northern Ireland losing more public sector workers, 26,000, than anywhere else the UK by 2017.
Responding to the figures shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker argued:
“I am very concerned by the findings of this report which predicts that Northern Ireland will have the highest number of public sector job losses of any UK region.
“The Tory-led government’s spending cuts and tax rises go too far and too fast. The impact of their disastrous economic policies – which handed Northern Ireland a cut of £4 billion to its budget – has choked off the economic recovery and put more people out of work, meaning the government is set to borrow £158 billion more than planned.”
Former Welsh secretary Paul Murphy used on-going rumblings about the future of the union to argue in favour of regional devolution for England.
Speaking to Radio Wales’s “Sunday Supplement” about the UK Parliament he concluded:
“In effect it is an English parliament in the sense that they’ve got in England far more members of parliament than Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales put together. That’s why we were arguing very strongly about the number of Welsh members of parliament, to keep our voice up.
“Despite that, there are ways and means, it seems to me, we need to examine how the English regions might react to further development. Although it didn’t work before when we had a referendum in the north east of England, I’m not quite so sure these days that English devolution within in the regions is off the map.
“People should consider now having regional government in England as a means by which we progress constitutionally.”
Plaid Cymru meanwhile published a review of its operations which recommended that the party should provide greater clarity about its objectives in relation to independence and should consider changing its name to the Welsh National Party. Writing on the suggestion of a name change, branding expert Sara Robinson of Cake Communications in Cardiff wrote for BBC News:
“If it goes ahead it will be a radical departure for the party. There is a misconception that Plaid Cymru is the party for Welsh speakers, but they have come a long way in the last 20 years.
“They have many non-Welsh speaking members, as well as AMs and councillors, who represent areas which are not traditionally Welsh speaking. But if you didn’t know that, then you would be forgiven for assuming it’s a party for Welsh speakers because a Welsh language brand gives that impression.
“In that sense, their brand isn’t truly reflecting the party as it is today and isn’t working hard enough for them as it doesn’t have the wide appeal the party needs.
“I am sure there will be a lot of debate around the right and wrongs of dropping the Welsh language element [in English] of their brand.
“But just as any business would take a long, hard look at how it markets itself after a period of poor results, I think it’s only logical that the party undergoes a period of reassessment after disappointing recent elections.”
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