I’m currently reading an interesting, if insubstantial, little book called ‘A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy’, by Patrick Hannan. It is an amiable read, written with a light touch: arguably too light for the subject which it purports to examine. I intend to write about the book more comprehensively when I get time. However, I was interested to note that its speculations about an English parliament forming the last component of a long term devolution settlement are echoed in a piece on Conservative Home, written by a Scottish activist.
I am broadly of the view that an English parliament would dwarf its Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts to an extent that would unbalance, perhaps fatally, the United Kingdom’s equilibrium. Asymmetries in the current devolved constitutional system form its inherent weakness, but creating an even bigger asymmetry would not be my chosen means to recalibrate the Union. And yet I am aware that there is no appetite in England for devolution to smaller, sub-national assemblies.
Andrew Morrison, writing in his Con Home article, is certainly right to suppose that there are difficulties to be addressed and his contention that it will be a Conservative government which must address them is perhaps the most interesting aspect of his piece. That means tackling interlocking problems surrounding the Barnett formula and the West Lothian Question. As regards Scottish devolution Morrison foresees the Calman Commission’s proposals forming a self-imposed boundary for Conservative instigated constitutional reform. Stepping outside the confines of those recommendations might stoke resentment aggravated by the SNP myth that any UK government needs a separate mandate from Scotland, in order to legislate on its behalf.
Replacing Barnett with a more up to date formula, by which to allocate tax payers’ money on the basis of need, should indeed be a Conservative priority. A less arbitrary system is required in order to give the appearance of fairness and responsiveness to requirements throughout the United Kingdom. Which is not to say that any of the block grants should necessarily be cut dramatically, but rather that a more flexible assessment of need should be the basis by which money is allocated.