Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Those who try to repeat history probably didn’t understand it


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Indy Politics

In one of the great parliamentary moments of the 20th century, the Conservative Leo Amery, appalled by Chamberlain’s dithering over whether to come to the aid of Nazi-invaded Poland, shouted out as Labour’s Arthur Greenwood rose to reply: “Speak for England, Arthur.”

Echoing those famous words yesterday, the Tory John Redwood did his valiant best to turn this into another historic occasion, instead setting the tone for what was actually a rather banal one.

“England expects [note the Nelson reference] English votes for English issues,” he thundered. “And we expect simplicity and justice… Will you join me in speaking for England?”

This didn’t work for several reasons. One is that Amery (and Nelson) were using “England” in its old-fashioned sense meaning the whole United Kingdom. But the other is that whatever the other merits of the EVEL proposals unveiled by William Hague yesterday, “simplicity” was hardly one of them.

“It is inappropriate to call it a dog’s breakfast because any sensible dog would turn up its nose at it!” declaimed Labour’s Sir Gerald Kaufman “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This was well over the top, “not broke” hardly describing where we are. But problems kept cropping up from unexpected quarters, many of them to do with what exactly are “English” issues.

Leave aside Scotland. While wrapping themselves in the flag of St George, some English Tories underestimated the Welsh dragon. Since lots of Welsh people depend on lots of “services delivered in England”, the former (Conservative ) Welsh Secretary David Jones pointed out, “it would be wholly wrong if the representatives of those people were to be denied a voice.”

Nor was Ian Paisley Jr of the DUP – on whose votes a future Tory-led government may have to rely – exactly happy. The Hague proposal, he declared, “appears to me as a member of this kingdom to be more about a party political necessity than the needs of the members of all this kingdom”.

This theme was –naturally taken up by Labour’s Sadiq Kahn. “Our criterion would be not what is in the interest of the Conservative party but what is in the interest of our country.” Hmm. Not to mention the interests of the Labour Party, which might require Scottish votes to get a budget through.

Labour’s Chris Bryant accused Hague of breaching William Pitt’s mantra on the 1801 Act of Union that “all members of this house should be equal”. Hague answered that Pitt’s argument was because the Irish House of Commons was dissolved in 1799, and what followed was “a Union Parliament without any devolved Parliaments”. On the whole, it is unwise to tangle with Hague on issues of history.