Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Doubles all round, the MPs drunk on devolution cried


Donald Macintyre
Thursday 27 November 2014 21:59

It was all in the final flourish of Alistair Carmichael’s statement. We could, he said, achieve “home rule all round”. The phrase is venerable, coined by 19th-century Liberals and nationalists who wanted federal Britain to make Irish and Scottish home rule acceptable to the rest of the United Kingdom.

And the ever-genial Scottish Secretary was at his most statesmanlike in the Commons today. But maybe because of his delight at this “historic moment for Scotland”, his pay-off still sounded strangely like “doubles all round”.

If only it was that easy. “Home rule all round” is a lot more controversial than it sounds. True, Carmichael’s satisfaction was reasonable. The fact that five parties under Lord Smith had actually agreed anything inside two months was indeed “unprecedented” – even if the SNP had it both ways by signing up to the deal and then complaining that it didn’t go far enough.

The Commission’s report was “interesting as far as it goes”, said the SNP’s Stewart Hosie, like a dominie damning with half-hearted praise a sub-standard composition by a hitherto promising pupil. “I do welcome the report as modest progress.” But it did not presage the “powerhouse parliament” the Scots had been promised, he complained. But then the nationalists would have to say that because if it was all they wanted, what would be the point of independence?

Excited by the Burns Night deadline for the Scotland Bill, Scottish Labour MPs fell over each other to invoke the national poet. Would Carmichael announce the legislation at Burns supper in her Ayrshire constituency, where the bard was born, asked Sandra Osborne. Would he then cross into Kilmarnock where Burns’ works were published, asked the town’s MP Cathy Jamieson. As Labour’s Sheila Gilmore drily commented, Carmichael would have to go “to every part of Scotland” where Burns “dallied and romanced”.

But England is the time bomb now. Today, Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran wisely confined herself to what this would all mean for a “better Scotland”, other than repeating her party’s official policy – that what she called with studied vagueness “pushing power closer to the people” should be mulled over by a constitutional convention.

Her English colleague Graham Allen wanted immediate local devolution without a convention “that may never report”. John Denham wanted “much more radical change in Westminster”. And these were just the differences within Labour.

But for many Tories backing English votes for English laws (Evel for short), the issue was anything but vague. “Does he agree that the English must have a veto on all laws that largely or exclusively affect them?” Andrew Tyrie, one of the less extreme Evel-doers, asked.

Meanwhile, John Redwood went for the Labour jugular, having spotted that the Commission had devolved income tax levels while keeping just enough fiscal power in the UK to entitle Chancellor Ed Balls to expect Scottish help in getting a Budget through. “It would be quite wrong for Scottish MPs... to fix [tax] bands and rates for the English,” he asserted.

“I am confident,” said Carmichael at one point, “that England will get what England wants when England decides exactly what it is she wants.” Don’t hold your breath for that.

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