Magazine article The Spectator

Alex Salmond Is Nudging the English towards Independance without Them Realising It

Magazine article The Spectator

Alex Salmond Is Nudging the English towards Independance without Them Realising It

Article excerpt

Before the campaign for an English parliament has time to gather critical mass, its goal may already be achieved. The first vote David Cameron's government holds on health will be a unique constitutional event: all Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs will be banned from the voting lobbies. There is likely to be no fanfare, no regal presence, no Red Arrows as there were in the modern Scottish Parliament's first sitting. But the Parliament of England -- adjourned in October 1707 -- will, in effect, be reconvened.

Little attention has been paid to the emerging English Question which is the flipside of Scotland's loosening of its ties with Westminster. There is no particular clamour over it, but there does not need to be. It is Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, who is making the running. The more success he has prosecuting the next stages of his separatist mission, the sooner the flag of St George will fly over Westminster.

The revived sense of Englishness is combined with a sense of injustice. Why should Scottish MPs vote on whether English students pay university top-up fees if English MPs have no say over what happens on Scottish campuses? This is the West Lothian Question in action, an old conundrum that would be resolved by the Tory proposal of 'English votes for English laws'.

This would change the landscape of Westminster. A small Cameron majority in the Commons would be converted to a safe majority for England alone -- encouraging him, naturally, to have an England-focused first term. This would raise the bar for a Labour comeback. Even at the last election, Tory voters outnumbered their Labour counterparts in England. It is the Celtic fringe (and Westminster's notoriously unfair voting system) which gives Gordon Brown his majority.

What would put rocket boosters under the issue would be reform of England's financial ties with Scotland. Government figures show a £13 billion annual subsidy from England to Scotland, a figure which Mr Salmond believes is concocted to dampen demand for independence. Scotland, he argues, is really subsidising England. He wants Scotland's budget to be limited to what it raises in tax, after cutting a deal over North Sea oil. It could be a tremendous deal for whichever country turns out to be right.

All this excites some Tories, who believe Mr Salmond is making an offer a Tory government should not refuse. 'If we'd have proposed cutting Scotland loose five years ago, we would have been accused of leaving it to the wolves, ' one shadow minister told me. 'Salmond is stupid enough to see this as emancipation, so let's do it.' He added that his favoured policy was 'lining the Tweed with explosives and floating Scotland off towards Iceland' -- but that fiscal autonomy was 'the next best thing'. The idea also chimes with the Liberal Democrats' proposals for 'fiscal federalism'.

A fiscally autonomous England would be much more manageable. Scotland's welfare problem is more deeply ingrained and its slow rate of economic growth has dragged down the British growth rate for 13 of the last 15 years. The proceeds of this higher growth could be used to better distribute funds within England. By happy coincidence for Mr Cameron, this would most likely lead to the channelling of funds to the Midlands and the North-east -- precisely where the Tories need to widen and harden their support. …

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