Strong language from Nick Clegg on more powers for Scotland: This opportunity cannot be hijacked

I had a sneak preview of an article Nick Clegg wrote for today’s Sunday Post. I was a bit disappointed in its blandness. We needed more robust language, I felt. Why? Well, when Cameron had just had almost half of Scots who voted tell him they wanted out of the Union, his main message in response was to pick a fight with Labour on the so-called “West Lothian Question.” Really, Dave, is that what you take from all of this? By making more powers for Scotland seem contingent on resolving the English votes for English laws issues, he exacerbated tensions up here.

Yes supporters were already, entirely understandably, devastated. I only need to think of the anxiety I’ve felt over the last couple of weeks to understand entirely how it feels for them. The last thing these people needed to do was to find themselves in the middle of a scrap between the Tories and Labour over something that was irrelevant to them. There needed to be a very clear message that the powers would be delivered on time. If they aren’t, then, frankly, the three pro-UK parties are completely stuffed. As Ming Campbell memorably put it on the BBC News Channel on Friday night, you might as well hand out free membership of the SNP.

Rather than use his resignation statement to bring people together and soothe people’s emotions, Alex Salmond sought to raise tensions by suggesting that David Cameron had reneged on a commitment to have the Second Reading of the new Scotland Bill by 27th March. That was never part of the deal. As an MP of 20 years’ standing, Salmond should know that even if it had had its second reading by then, it would have fallen as Parliament is due to be dissolved days later. The commitment was to have a Bill ready to be debated by the next Parliament immediately after the election. That’s what the Better Together election poster explicitly said:

Better Together election poster


Gordon Brown, who took control of the more powers issue in fairly spectacular fashion in the last few days of the campaign, pretty much telling the party leaders what was going to happen, gave a speech yesterday in which he stated that the powers would be delivered on time.

Just as the eyes of the world were on Scotland this week, so too the eyes of the Scottish people are now on ensuring that the promise makers do not become promise breakers. I see my job as holding them to account. So I remind people today of the summary I published two weeks ago of Labour’s proposals for new powers, which taken with the 1998 and 2012 reforms add up to the most complete and unprecedented redistribution of power ever in these islands. And because people have already doubted whether there would be delivery, I want to make clear there is a triple protection, locking in the certainty of change as against inertia and delay.

In what must be a quite unprecedented bit of interference by a former Prime Minister, he set out the Parliamentary motion he had co-signed with the three Westminster leaders, the fact that he had got the Civil Service involved in the process of delivering more powers and signalled that an early debate would take place in Parliament to debate the timetable.

The cost of failing on this is massive, both for the UK, which would almost certainly eventually lose Scotland very soon and for each of the pro UK parties. In that context, Nick Clegg’s strong language is to be welcomed. Far from the blandness of the Sunday Post article, he let rip on the Lib Dem website. First of all, he painted what has happened as a typical stand-off between the Tories and Labour to halt constitutional reform:

We cannot allow an exciting new chapter of empowerment and constitutional renewal to be held hostage yet again by a Labour and Tory pre-election stand off.

The Conservatives, in their rush to protect themselves from an attack from the right, are only concerned about English votes on English matters. Of course we need a solution to this dilemma but, by appearing to link it to the delivery of further devolution to Scotland, they risk reneging on the commitment made to the Scottish people that, in the event of a No vote, new powers would come what may.

Worse still, if the Conservatives enter into a Dutch auction with UKIP over ever more extreme solutions to the issue of English votes they could jeopardise the Union they purport to defend. Surely we haven’t fought to save our Union in a vote north of the border, only to see it balkanised in Westminster?

Labour, by contrast, appears to have been taken by surprise by the unavoidable consequences of devolving sweeping new powers to Holyrood. They are choosing to ignore the dilemma of non-English MPs taking decisions on purely English issues – as a party with dozens of Scottish MPs they have the most to lose.

So, unless they’re careful, the Conservatives may end up turning their back on Scotland, while Labour ignores England: a recipe for stalemate when we should we working across political divides to renew our creaking constitution from top to toe.

Then he laid out three things he thinks need to happen. Delivery of more powers to Scotland on time is essential, but so is a three year UK wide constitutional convention which culminates in 2017.

First, delivering the devolution that has been promised to Scotland. No ifs, no buts. The package of reforms myself, Ed Miliband and David Cameron all committed to must be delivered on time and cannot be made contingent on other constitutional reforms, even as we pursue agreement on them in parallel.

We must deliver further powers for Wales as recommended by the Silk Commission while strengthening devolution in Northern Ireland too. And, on the divisive issue of English votes for English matters, we must start with the work of Sir William McKay, who has already done a lot of the heavy lifting after the Coalition asked him to look at this. Sir McKay suggested a number of ways of giving English MPs a special right to vet legislation where it only affects England, bringing in Welsh MPs where appropriate, in a way which avoids fragmenting the Commons.

Second, we need a much more radical dispersal of power within England.

In Coalition I have been determined that – against all of the instincts of central government – we hand back an array of powers to Britain’s communities and cities. But we need to turn this relationship fundamentally on its head. Currently the best local councils can hope for is to be granted new powers when the government of the day deigns to do so. Instead we must guarantee a new, legal right for local authorities to demand powers – decentralisation on demand if you like –  with central government having to meet a much higher threshold before it can refuse.

My aim is a statutory presumption in favour of the decentralisation of powers away from Whitehall. I see no reason why we cannot publish draft clauses for this early next year alongside our other pressing reforms.

Finally, as we move towards a more federal system we will need to codify the division of labour between Westminster and the constituent parts of the UK and set out a clear statement of the values we all share. In short, what amounts to a written constitution.

I welcome Labour’s decision to embrace the longstanding Liberal Democrat call for a constitutional convention – but it needs a precise mandate, beginning next year and concluding in 2017. It should have a Citizen’s Jury at its heart, representing every corner of the UK. One area it will need to address is the future of the House of Lords which, in my view, would better serve people as an elected second chamber, in keeping with federal political systems across the world. Ultimately, however, it will not be up to politicians – this process will be led by the people.

I think Nick understands that the Scottish element of that is not optional. It can’t be like party funding and Lords reform where he can stand up and say “Look at these two – they held back reform. We pushed for it all the way.” Yes campaigners are now banding together on social media under the banner of “the 45” and will be a formidable political force if we let them down.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Caron
    Your sunny and continuing belief in Nick Clegg, co-signatory of the already infamous VOW, is touching.

    But did you not notice Cameron’s speech at 7am on Friday morning? This area of government policy has nothing to do with Nick Clegg anymore. Clegg was stripped of his responsibility for constitutional reform and it was handed to William Hague.

    Public humiliation for Clegg, who we are told was not even informed of this change before Cameron made his speech on the steps of Downing Street. A clear indication of how this coalition works in practice.

  • Igor Sagdejev 21st Sep '14 - 9:16am

    Caron, I fully agree with what Mr Clegg writes and with what you write in this article. The language may be strong, but it fits the hour.

  • Paul in Wokingham 21st Sep '14 - 9:18am

    Gordon Brown is playing a good hand here. He can (with absolute sincerity) continue to bang the drum for devolution. And if it succeeds he can say that he (and by extension The Labour Party) made it happen. And if it fails he can point out that he tried and was blame the Conservatives and their Lib Dem enablers. Heads he wins, tails we lose.

  • Simon McGrath 21st Sep '14 - 9:21am

    But English Votes on English matters is fundamental to giving more power to Scotland so Clegg needs to be very clear that our support for further devolution is dependent upon it. Not to do so simply gives Cameron and worse UKIP a prime weapon in the election.
    We all know that once Labour get in they will never do anything about it and will be quite happy for their Scots MPs to vote to impose more taxes on the English safe in the knowledge it won’t affect their constituents.

    This is a simple change which can be introduced straight away and should be done before may 2015 – then we can get on with quickly devolving more power to Scotland as promised.

  • Bill Le Breton 21st Sep '14 - 9:50am

    I think that all that Nick Clegg is saying is right, but he needs to tell the party and the nations how he is going to use LD power in the remainder of this Parliamnet to press these ends.

    He needs to be very open. Who are our reps on this cabinet committee? He needs to if necessary defy the civil services love of secrecy and press for open meetings of the cabinet committee, televised. A first for open government in no 10.

    He needs to address from the steps of no 10 what is on the agenda of each meeting and what the LD position is on each issue being addresses. He needs to explain the linkages in our negotiations and he needs to seek public support for each of our positions, in good time, using our members and activists to campaign in their communities to bolster support for them.

    The steps of no 10 need to become his office .

    It is both a chance to show open, campaigning government … The LD approach of the dual approach, working inside and outside of the institution … And to win support in detail for our vision.

    If he plays the cabinet responsibility card and says he is prohibited from stepping out of line with the cabinet and PM, he will lose everything. Ok, so what if the Tories and the civil service kick up a fuss … Even seek to expel our members from the committee? What a great campaigning gift that would be. Can you see our people walking up Downing Street and having the door shut in their faces for being open with the British public about the constitution?

    This needs to be a test of approach as well as of content.

    Go get ’em, NC!

  • Igor Sagdejev 21st Sep '14 - 10:21am

    @Simon: Of course, EVEM is fundamental, not only to the further devolution, but even to the devolution to date, and we must commit the LDs to it. However, a rather hasty pledge has been made, and, as any pledge, if must be honoured.

  • Mack (Not a lib Dem) 21st Sep '14 - 10:22am

    Alastair Darling has made it quite clear this morning that if any of the Union parties welch on their pledge to the Scots they will be mired in obloquy for years to come and will never be forgiven. By appearing to make his party’ s pledge conditional on the removal of voting rights on English matters from Scottish MPs Cameron has shown himself to be a cynical opportunist who is only interested in making party capital and cannot be trusted on anything. (But we in Labour already knew that). If the coalition fails to deliver on its pledge to the Scots the broken pledge on tuition fees will be as nothing!

  • @Simon McGrath – Why would you want to offer the Tories virtual hegemony over England for evermore? With nothing in return?

    The Leadership of the Lib Dems now have a historic opportunity to really push for the solution Liberal Democrats have always fought for.

    Of course, we MUST keep the promise to the Scots immediately, that is absolutely non-negotiable, and must be without preconditions. After the Scots have voted no, it is matter of honour for our nation to keep that promise. We can then push for devolution to the English regions as the most appropriate solution for England.

    It is what we Liberal Democrats have always wanted! Isn’t it, Simon?

  • We’ve had this strong language from Nick before – during and after the expenses scandal. Then he got into government with some written down agreements on constitutional reform and a ministership in charge of that aspect.

    What has he delivered? At least part of the reason for that is that except when there are a few days when the sun shines on the issue the LIb Dems run away from talking about serious political reform – rather than pushing it and trying to make it part of the agenda. The result they end up wanting to become just another establishment party, defending the establishment rather than wanting to to change it. You can see that in the pre-announcing of the draft manifesto – priority being given to the cosy, consensual, soundbite-friendly policies with serious political reform pushed well down the agenda.

  • Am I missing something Caron? You talk about being disappointed at the blandness of what Nick wrote, and then in the headline and later on refer to his ‘strong language’. I’m happy with what he is quoted as saying as long as he backs it up with deeds: this is an issue that is so important that we have to be prepared to break up the coalition if Cameron simply plays politics with it. The Tories have nothing to lose by stiffing Scotland.

  • I agree with everthing Nick & Caron say on this. What is our reaction to the plan for a “Yes Alliance”, effectively turning the GE in Scotland into another Referendum ?

  • The conservatives have already hijacked the Scottish independence vote. If Cameron had wanted to attach a post election English settlement to any agreement with Scotland he should have gone to Scotland before the election and said so because it would probably have altered the vote and how Scottish Lib Dem and labour MPs would have campaigned. Cameron owes is job to Better Together, a movement that basically had to remove his party’s sorry toxic backside from the debate to scrape a win. A 5% swing would have taken the vote down to endless recounts and possibly a couple of dozen ballot papers.
    . I’ve said this before, The Conservative Party is the biggest threat to unity. They have virtually no support in Wales, Scotland, urban areas or that much of the north. They did not win a majority in 2010 and they should not get to dictate serious electoral reform after nearly demolishing the Union. Clegg needs do a little bit more than issue statements because The Tories tantrums are threatening to turn into a constitutional crisis.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st Sep '14 - 2:06pm

    Tony, the blandness was in the Sunday Post article which is also linked to. The strong language came in his later article on the Lib Dem website.

  • There is absolutely nothing in Clegg’s remarks that suggests he’s even remotely thinking about devolving power either to England or to English regions on a scale comparable even to that of Wales, let alone Scotland. This makes it obvious that the job of devolving power cannot be left to Westminster MPs who will seek to preserve as much power as possible for themselves.
    The flirting with depriving large numbers of MPs (including, one should add, large numbers of Lib Dem MPs) of their constitutional authority *without* devolution is appalling.

  • I would love to see the Gantt chart showing how you get from publishing plans for consultation at the end of October to publishing final agreed plans by the end of November. I hope Alastair Carmichael has opted out of the 48 hour working week directive for all employees at the Scottish Office.

    Having said that the government has to deliver on the Vow.

  • Thanks Caron – I thought I was probably being dim.
    John Tilley – I wonder why whoever it was interviewing William Hague on Friday morning didn’t ask him, “What are you doing here Mr Hague? I thought Nick Clegg was in charge of constitutional affairs.” I was hoping that we might end the coalition on a point of political principal rather than in the manner of Private Eye’s ‘CoAcc Academy Newsletter’ in which Clegg is humiliated by Cameron every time.

  • Caron

    If the Unionist parties were serious about their commitment to Scotland they would have time to legislate in this Parliament with cross party support. The fact that they are not prepared to do so shows that the BT promise was not worth the paper it was written on. If it waits until after the UK G E who will be leading the parties and what will be written into their manifestos? There is nothing in the BT commitment about the parties including it in their manifestos.

    It is also discriminatory to single out Scottish MPs as the issues now being raised apply to Welsh and NI MPs. So any deal on English laws will have to encompass Wales and NI ( good luck with that especially NI)

    So essentially the Lib Dems were complicit in selling a pup to Scotland which will come back to haunt you in May 2015. As a member of the45 I will do my utmost to make sure that happens.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st Sep '14 - 3:41pm

    Actually, @tonyhill, reading it back, I realised that you weren’t being dim at all. I’ve edited now to make it absolutely clear. What was in my head didn’t make it onto the page. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st Sep '14 - 3:43pm

    @Hireton: Just say it all works out and we get a substantial devolution of powers, something I think will happen, on time with further constitutional reform in the next Parliament. Will you then feel satisfied with that as a promise kept, or will you continue to fight for independence?

  • Caron

    I would accept something close to devo max as a staging post to independence in 10 to 20 years time. Otherwise it’s straight on forindependence.

  • Stephen Hesketh 21st Sep '14 - 6:16pm

    @Caron Lindsay 21st Sep ’14 – 2:06pm
    “Tony(Hill), the blandness was in the Sunday Post article which is also linked to. The strong language came in his later article on the Lib Dem website.”

    A very sad state of affairs. No wonder Paul in Wokingham is able to state in all honesty, “And if it fails he (Gordon Brown) can point out that he tried and was blame the Conservatives and their Lib Dem enablers. Heads he wins, tails we lose.”

    Exactly why isn’t Clegg’s message consistent and as forthright to both the British people and the Lib Dem membership?

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Sep '14 - 8:36pm

    It is in the national interest to check whether devolved powers are going to be used sensibly. This policy should be amended on the grounds of national interest.

    However, I agree with Nick that devolution to Scotland should happen immediately, regardless about the concerns of the rest of the UK.

  • Ian Hurdley 22nd Sep '14 - 8:01am

    There is and must continue to be no provision for 1st and 2nd class MPs at Westminster. The question of who may vote on purely English matters cannot be nodded through on the back of increasing the powers of the Scottish Parliament. A promise has been made and this party knows only too well the cost of being perceived to have broken a promise. Nick Clegg is right to insist that the issue of EVEM must be dealt with as part of a wider constitutional convention.
    If Cameron will not bend, then this is so important that we should make it clear that we will break the Coalition but not the promise.

  • I dont really understand all this devolution business, so dont shout me down if I am widely of the mark in my comments 🙂

    I fail to see what is wrong with keeping Westminster as it is, so that all Scottish / Welsh / Northern Ireland MP’s continue to play there role in uk politics as it is now.

    Uk Parliament should then be able to vote and set what would be the “minimum” requirements for a policy area.
    i.e the amount someone should receive in Pensions,
    The amount someone should receive on JSA, ESA, & Other Disability Benefits
    The amount that should be spent in pounds per student, etc.
    The amount to be spent on the NHS and care services.
    The Minimum amount a person can be taxed or NI

    These would be the minimum set requirements that each Nation had to stick too

    Since it is the English Part of Government that seems hell bent on spending as little as possible, England would then adopt these minimum principles.

    The Devolved Powers given to Scotland and the rest of the nations would then allow them to
    Increase taxation, Increase National Insurance, Introduce LVT or Mansion Taxes

    They would be free from Westminster to decide on whether they wanted to increase certain welfare payments,
    How they assessed someones eligibility for disability Benefits and the criteria needed, scrapping PIP and Universal Credit, Bedroom Tax, If that is their decision and using their own method of delivering benefits. (As long as each person receives at least the amount as set out in Westminster)
    Total control over their own work programs & Sanction regimes
    How they allocate their education budgets and tuition fee’s
    How they run their own NHS services, Free Prescriptions, And limiting the use of private providers (If that’s their decision)
    If they wanted to raise tax or to create new tax measures like LVT, Mansion Tax etc in order for increased funding then they should be entirely free to do so.

    To create a 2 tier parliament where Scottish / Welsh/ Northern Irish are unable to vote on certain policies would be totally ludicrous. This is just the Tories Tactics to eliminate the opposition so they would always have full control and dominate over England and Westminster.
    It would be ludicrous not to be able to have another Scottish / welsh Chancellor, Or health Minister, or Education Minister or Welfare Minister, or secretary of states or Parliamentary Under-Secretaries .

    I seriously hope that the Liberal democrats and the Labour Party work together to STOP the Tories in their tracks in their covert attempts to totally take over west minister and England. It is not in either parties interest and it would certainly not be in the countries interest where we would be forever dominated by Tory control.

  • I must add my support to those caling on Nick Clegg to be absolutely loud and clear on this matter. We are being ignored; there has been next to nothing in the general news about what Nick has said on our website. Unless Nick does something dramatic and make clear again and again that we think Cameron is completely wrong in diverting attention to the English questions in order to have a fight with Labour, our voice will not be heard and we will yet again be blamed as supporting the Tories.

  • @Matt
    “I seriously hope that the Liberal democrats and the Labour Party work together to STOP the Tories in their tracks in their covert attempts to totally take over west minister and England.”

    If the people of England vote in a Conservative Government, then why should Lib Dems or Labour feel they have the right to deny them their wish? Note, this is a question from someone living in Wales, but along with the majority of the rest of the UK (according to recent polling) thinks that non-English MPs shouldn’t vote on English only matters.

  • Latest Scottish opinion poll. Lib Dems at 3.4%, it is laughable. What do we do about it, seemingly nothing, just pontificate on this and that, most of which is meaningless to the electorate..

  • Because in my opinion, the way that the Tories are using covert tactics by implementing policies that increase their hold over the UK and especially England.
    These Benefit reforms especially affecting people living in London boroughs looks very much to me like they are intended to push out those on lower income / welfare recipients out of London and into other area’s of the country which are more Labour controlled (Birmingham) and replace then with more “middle income/ High Income” earners ( Tory Voters)
    By stealth the Tory party are hoping to fill Labour run boroughs with more Tory Inclined Voters in the hope of taking the seat in future elections.

    I maybe wrong, but the paranoid conspiracist in me thinks this is all part of the evil Tory plan . A plan that will give them greater power and control over the rest of England.
    That does not seem very democratic to me and I would hope that the other parties would come together to stop this as it is in the countries interest not just the parties

  • And by the way. My suggestions on the way Westminster should run would have meant that it would not be an English Matter.
    The whole of the UK should get a say through their elected representative on what all the citizens of the 4 nations can expect as a minimum standard from Government, then it is up to the devolved nations if they wanted to increase this through further taxation or new tax measures.

  • If Scotland, Wales & Norther Ireland gets a say on if and how much the UK Tax Payers spend on foreign aid budgets,
    They should also have a say over the own fellow country men, how much is spent on our poor, vulnerable and disabled and how poverty is defined.

    I certainly do not trust the Tory Party to have a free reign on this.

  • If Cameron should manage to get EVEM onto the statute book during this parliament, the Commons voting cost to the Tories is negligible; one Scottish MP excluded. But, typically, he hasn’t thought it through. The First Secretary to the Treasury, for example would be denied a vote on English matters even if they formed part of a larger piece of legislation affecting the wider UK.
    To refuse to join him in the Government lobby would not be a betrayal of the principle of coalition, but a clear statement that the senior party can only push the smaller so far. It happens in coalitions in other countries and the world doesn’t come to an end.

  • Hi Matt

    “Because in my opinion, the way that the Tories are using covert tactics by implementing policies that increase their hold over the UK and especially England.”

    But these aren’t covert policies, they’ve been discussed extensively on web sites like this. If the people agree with what the CP have done they will vote for them again. if they don’t they won’t – that’s what democracy is all about.

    “They should also have a say over the own fellow country men, how much is spent on our poor, vulnerable and disabled and how poverty is defined.”

    Surely that is just calling for a time when every thing was run centrally? The whole point of devolution is that different areas have different needs. Although I’m guessing that I must be pretty close to the (relative) poverty threshold of where I live, I would imagine that I’d be at down and out level if I was in London. So what level would you set relative poverty at? Set it using where I live as a base line and it won’t help you much in London – set it where you live and it would probably distort things where I live.

    I’m under no illusion that a CP Gov in England would help Wales, but this isn’t about me, it’s about treating people equally throughout the UK and, as I mentioned, the polling would suggest that the majority of fair minded people think it is the right thing to do.

  • David Evershed 22nd Sep '14 - 5:40pm

    Matt says ” If Scotland, Wales & Norther Ireland gets a say on if and how much the UK Tax Payers spend on foreign aid budgets, they should also have a say over the own fellow country men, how much is spent on our poor, vulnerable and disabled and how poverty is defined.”

    Such a proposal appears to suggest that Scotland, Wales and NI MPs should have a vote over English affairs, whilst English MPs would not have a vote over similar devolved Scottish, Welsh and NI matters.

    This is surely undemocratic, as is the current situation where Scottish, Welsh and NI MPs vote on English education and health issues.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with the statement that now we have been roped into this promise, we must stick by it, even if that means breaking the Coalition to achieve it.

    EVEM is an important issue, but it is not this issue – and to conflate the two is Tory cynicism of the worst kind.

  • It need not matter that Nick Clegg is not responsible for this area of policy. He’s responsible for the actions of the parliamentary party he leads. All he needs to do is to make clear that a cynical and damaging Tory attempt to rush through a change in the voting powers of Scottish MPs in advance of a wider settlement will be voted down. It’s a pity we didn’t rush out a statement to this effect to be quoted alongside Cameron’s: that would have got far more publicity than Nick Clegg’s words now.

    There is a huge opportunity here to channel renewed interest in politics – both sides of that border – into real change and to make the points about constitutional reform that Liberal Democrats are best placed to make. But change must involve all parties and indeed all people who want to be involved, which is why a constitutional convention and a timescale of some two years are right.

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