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Britain's constitutional crisis moves from acute to severe

Dr Robert Saunders, Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen Mary University of London, argues that promises made in the final weeks of the campaign may result in a political hangover for David Cameron and his government.

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Britain's constitutional crisis has just moved from acute to severe. Last night's referendum vote closed the book (for the moment) on Scottish independence; but it has thrown the constitutional balance of the United Kingdom entirely out of kilter. A political earthquake is brewing, and the aftershocks will be felt for a generation. As Winston Churchill might have put it: 'the Battle for Scotland is over. I expect that the Battle for Britain is about to begin'.

The origins of the present crisis lie in the final weeks of the campaign. The promise, by the three main party leaders, to transform the powers of the Scottish Parliament struck a decisive blow against the independence campaign; but it was constitutionally reckless and extremely ill conceived. 

Without reference to Parliament, or even to their own backbenchers, they announced a fundamental revision of the constitution that will affect the governance of the entire United Kingdom. The so-called "West Lothian Question" - the anomaly by which MPs for Scottish and Welsh seats can vote on laws that do not affect their constituents - has just turned nuclear.

Political land-grab

David Cameron's response this morning, demanding "English votes for English laws", was an audacious political land-grab. But constitutions are like old buildings: they are rarely as robust as they appear. In rushing to seize the initiative for the Conservatives, Cameron resembled nothing more than the dodgy builder in Fawlty Towers, who knocks through a wall and nearly demolishes the hotel.

The "West Lothian Question" is real enough, but 'English votes for English laws' would throw up huge anomalies of its own. A government with a slim majority across the UK, which lacked a majority in England, would occupy all the great offices of state, but would be powerless to legislate for England. Yet in the absence of a separate English Executive, it would be hard for anyone else to do so either. This would be a recipe for gridlock, which could actively disempower English MPs. It would strengthen the case for a separate English Parliament, a solution that Cameron has explicitly rejected.

Cameron's preferred mechanism - which keeps English law-making in Westminster - would establish two different classes of MP: some voting on all questions, others voting only on non-devolved issues. The distinction between those categories is not exact, and there would need to be a robust mechanism for adjudicating on disputes. Otherwise, for the first time in the modern era, we are likely to see votes in the House of Commons being challenged in the courts.

Executive responsibility 

Nor is it clear, under such a system, whether an MP from Scotland or Wales could serve at the Home Office or in one of the other great departments of state. They would have executive responsibility for policies that did not affect their constituents, an anomaly that would be extremely difficult to defend. Yet excluding them from the UK government would shake the very foundations of the Union.

'English votes for English laws' is a euphonious phrase, but it is a recipe for disaster unless it is part of a wider constitutional package. It certainly cannot be achieved on the timetable set out by Mr Cameron this morning. The prime minister's insistence that it happen 'in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland' means a deadline of March 2015, if the promises made to Scotland are to be honoured. Such a timetable only makes sense when you remember that a General Election will follow shortly afterwards. But the constitution does not belong to any one party, and our politicians cannot keep rewriting it on the back of a cigarette packet.

As my colleague Tim Bale wrote this morning, 'We are in serious danger of doing a Dangerous Dogs Act on the UK Constitution'. Laws passed in haste are repented at leisure. 

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Dr Robert Saunders is a Lecturer in Modern British History at QMUL's School of History. He specialises in modern British history, from the early 19th century to the present,  focusing particularly on political history and the history of ideas. He taught at Oxford University from 2004 to 2013, and has held two visiting fellowships at the Huntington Library in California. He blogs here.

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