Leading article: This fractious union


Surely there is something fitting about the fact that Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a Scottish Tory representing an English constituency, has had a stab at answering the dreaded West Lothian question. Sir Malcolm is due to unveil a proposal for an "English Grand Committee" in Westminster. The purpose of this is to ensure that only MPs who represent English constituencies can vote on issues that affect England alone.

In truth, this is not a new proposal. The Tories have actually been suggesting something along these lines since Scottish devolution in 1999. But Mr Cameron seems more inclined than his predecessors to push down this road. And it is not hard to see the attraction for the present Conservative leader. It seems an effective way to put pressure on the Government and also to emphasise Gordon Brown's "Scottishness" to crucial English swing voters. And Sir Malcolm appears to have come up with a formula for his leader that sounds less crude than the previous Tory cry of "English votes on English laws".

Labour's slightly panicked reaction is unlikely to discourage the Tories. The Labour deputy leader, Harriet Harman, took to the airwaves yesterday to call the plan "extremely dangerous" and warn that it would lead to the break-up of the UK. Labour, of course, has a pretty obvious interest in maintaining the status quo. Without the support of its own Scottish MPs in Westminster, the Government could find itself out-voted by the Tories on a number of issues.

Yet Ms Harman is not being entirely hysterical in warning about a threat to the Union from these proposals. The creation of what would effectively be two classes of MPs at Westminster would indeed undermine the commonality of national purpose that is supposed to define the spirit of the Westminster Parliament. Is this really what a party that once styled itself as the defender of the Union wants? And have the Conservatives really resigned themselves to never becoming a political force north of the border again? That is certainly the message their support for English regional autonomy sends out.

The Tories will have no shortage of support from certain elements in Scotland if they persist in this direction. The Scottish Nationalist Party and its leader, Alex Salmond, are in celebratory mode at their annual conference in Aviemore. Their successful five-month stewardship of the Scottish Executive has only heightened their appetite for independence. Mr Salmond will be only too pleased to support the creation of an "English parliament". The Conservative leader should perhaps think carefully before giving the wily Mr Salmond what he wants.

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