It’s telling, if not surprising, that devolution and territorial issues have been left off the list of points that might form the basis of a Conservative-Lib Dem alliance at Westminster. They’ve only figured in the alternative Labour-Lib Dem arrangement because that needs SNP and Plaid Cymru support to work as well. (Nick Robinson has surveyed those issues well, here.)
One very obvious reason for that is the extent to which the Tory-Lib Dem alliance relies on English seats and votes. Out of the 363 seats the two parties have (at present – with the election in Thirsk & Malton, traditionally a safe Tory seat, yet to be held), only 23 are from Scotland or Wales. That’s just 6.3 per cent. Its strength in England has the advantage of meaning that there’s no immediate pressure to address the West Lothian question, but by the same token, that government would need to think carefully about wider territorial issues. Its mandate is very weak outside England, yet it will claim to govern all parts of the UK – and to impose serious spending cuts on the devolved governments. (For my earlier discussion of the risks that poses, see HERE.)
I can’t see how avoiding cuts is a viable option (though, as I’ve pointed out before HERE, if health spending is protected that does minimise their impact on the devolved administrations). But a clear programme to enable devolution to do what it is supposed to do – reconcile self-government with membership of the Union – is needed. One point on which both parties are agreed is implementation of the Calman commission proposals. Those proposals are far from perfect, as I’ve argued before, HERE, HERE and HERE: they’re rooted in very small-c conservative view of devolution, duck the harder and long-term question of what the division of powers between UK and devolved levels should be, were imperfect in their own terms and further and materially diluted in the white paper the Labour UK Government adopted in November 2009 . But they’re on the table, both parties are committed to them, and the UK Government has started to think seriously about how to implement them. The Conservatives, it’s worth remembering, reserved their position on the Labour white paper and said they’d produce their own, with a deadline of May 2011 set out in the manifesto.
There is a meaningful ‘Calman-plus’ option, which involves rapid implementation of the Calman recommendations, to a clear timetable, without the dilutions made in the Labour white paper and with a small number of modest extensions that would tangibly increase the extent to which those changes would enhance devolved autonomy. A commitment to that could form the basis for a new UK Government policy, helping it tackle its problems in Scotland. One of the reasons why even Calman is difficult to implement is because it involves considerable administrative upheaval. The UK white paper minimised the upheaval, but also the political benefit that package could confer. Those steps will be needed in any event – and another important part of a ‘Calman plus’ package would be the acceptance that these changes were not the end point of a debate but steps along a path which would probably involve furthers changes in future.
The over-riding need for the new UK Government, though, is going to be to think territorially, and act carefully. And with such a large electoral base in England, the temptation to do otherwise will be strong. Such a government will have to decide if it’s one for the Union or just for England. A lot hangs on what it does.