Who'll take the hard road?

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The Independent Online
Long predicted, much trailed, it has finally arrived: the Conservative counter-attack on Labour's proposals for the reform of British politics, including Scottish Home Rule, has dominated the beginning of the year. John Major, looking perkier than for a long time, has used his several media opportunities to proclaim the new battleground.

And, surprise, surprise, the same claque of English nationalist commentators and editors who have pilloried him over Europe, find him Reassuringly Right about this.

This being an English occasion, we will not see the Prime Minister embracing Lord Rees-Mogg or being publicly kissed on both cheeks by the editor of the Sunday Telegraph. But there is a sense of excitement and optimism across the Conservative establishment, of old relatives and natural allies coming together after a sad and unpleasant falling-out. It's enough to bring a tear to the eye.

And, having wiped it briskly away again, in a manly fashion, to express just a few words of mild reservation and even milder irritation.

It is entirely proper to elevate the constitution of the country to the centre of political debate. Mr Major is accomplishing as Prime Minister what reformists such as Charter 88 have been trying to do for years.

What makes one gape, however, is that Mr Major should issue warnings about altering the British constitution for short-term party advantage. This from the leader of the Conservative quango state? From a man whose party has spent the past 17 years abolishing tiers of government it couldn't control and assaulting others? From a government which has democratised trade unionists' political levies, but which mysteriously forgot about shareholders' ones?

Mr Major glows with sincerity. But if he thinks he and a rallying Tory party can claim defence of the constitution as the high ground, then they'd better keep away from Hackney Marshes in case of vertigo.

The key issue is Scottish Home Rule. Mr Major has not said frankly that the Scots may not have their own parliament and stay British - that he forbids this extension of democracy. He is probably aware that between 75 and 80 per cent of them do want some measure of Home Rule, and have done so for a long time. That being so, he may feel that to tell them to go and stick it up their kilts might seem a touch undemocratic.

Instead, he resorts to windy warnings. He has spoken of devolution as "a sort of teenage madness''. Is he aware that, if so, some of his colleagues have a sad history of underage lunacy - not only Edward Heath and Alec Douglas-Home, who held some sort ofposition in the Tory party once, but also Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie and Michael Ancram, who are ministers still. Worse, the estimable Mr Ancram is up to his old devolutionist tricks with regard to Northern Ireland. Teenage ma dness everywhere! But Mr Major goes further, describing devolution as "one of the most dangerous propositions ever put before the British nation". (On a par, presumably, with the invitation to make peace with Hitler in 1939.)

What is the truth behind the hysteria? The real condition of Home Rule politics is both less dramatic and more fluid than Major's uncharacteristic hype suggests. Although the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1992 produced a serious blueprint for an Edinburgh Parliament (does Mr Major know about it?), the Home Rulers still have a lot of work to do.

The "West Lothian question'' was originally asked in the Seventies by Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for that constituency. He intends to ask it again on Thursday, and this is significant because it goes to the heart of the alleged problems with Home Rule. The question is this: why should Scottish MPs at Westminster be able to vote on English matters if, once a Scottish Parliament is established, English MPs cannot vote on Scottish affairs?

Though it might seem a matter of trivial parliamentary procedure, it is not. Ever since the first Queen Elizabeth died and King James came galloping south, the English have grumbled about uppity Scots throwing their weight around. If the Scots had their own Parliament a few years from now, ire about the unfairness of Tory England being obliged to put up with policies foisted on it by socialist Celts would fill the leader-pages of London papers.

The unfairness of lefty Scots being obliged to put up with policies foisted on them by Tory England has not aroused the interest of the "national'' press to the same extent. Similarly, Tory proposals for a Northern Ireland Assembly would raise an identical question-mark over the status of Ulster Unionist MPs who generally vote with the Government. Mr Major has not spoken about removing their rights. These are curiosities, however, that need not detain us.

There are various answers to the question. The first, not entirely logical one, is that the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster should be cut. That would damage Labour's parliamentary base, but would not really answer the question, which is more about the entitlements of all non-English MPs than about their numbers.

The second answer is to say that there should be two classes of legislation at Westminster, British and English-only, with the latter barred to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. That would amount to an unbalanced federation, in which the all-UK government became a vestigial, unstable excrescence.

The third and best answer is to say that those domestic, relatively local powers which are envisaged by Labour for the Scottish Parliament badly need to be devolved from Westminster to the rest of the country too.

This is Labour's answer, and quite right too. The West Lothian question is potent only if you want to maintain a centralised, unitary state with absolutist pretensions - which Labour says it doesn't.

Where Labour is so far unconvincing is in proposing a new system of regional government to balance the Scottish administration. But there is no insuperable problem there. So long as the English don't want regional government, the devolution of power should be much more radical: wherever possible it should go to the shires and the cities.

The policy areas we are talking about after all, such as health, education, the environment and training, have already partly gone, but to quangos. Is it really beyond the wit of Westminster to pass more control to England's local democracies, with some going to smallish unitary authorities, and some things being shared by bigger alliances of them?

That would produce a devolved system of government across all of Britain, which would play to local loyalties, while leaving those things most sensibly done by the centre with a London-based Parliament. It would be "subsidiarity" - a fine potion of whichthe current Government drinks deeply, but denies to the rest of the country.

But this vision, says Mr Major, is not stable. It would lead inexorably to the break-up of the UK. Well, it might. He calls the current Unionist constitution flexible and successful. But perhaps in reality it is so brittle that it cannot reform without shattering. Perhaps there is nothing that links Scotland and England but acts of Parliament - no wider interest, no common affection.

But in this case, who would make the problems in London? Who would try to stop Scottish Home Rule working? We know about the Scottish National Party; but perhaps there is an English one in the making too. After all, English nationalism is, as Mr Major has noted in the past, a deep and potent force both in the Tory party and the country.

As it happens, I think none of this is either inevitable or likely. But given the Prime Minister's apocalyptic warnings and provocative language, and the saliency of the issue in the Tory party, one begins to wonder how far he wants to take this. Does hewant to smother English nationalism? Or deep down, does he speak for it?