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Waiving the Rules

I’ve been out of the country for four days and quite a bit seems to have happened while I was gone, at least in political terms, and none of it reassuring. 

Before I left last Friday morning, the Scots were still counting the votes from a referendum to decide whether Scotland should be an independent nation.  In the event the ‘No vote’ won the day.  Much, I might add, to the relief of half of Scotland and apparently to the majority in the other three tribal enclaves that we’ve known for three hundred years as the United Kingdom

So, one might think, that was the end of that. 

Except that, that is not exactly that.  There seems to be more trouble brewing, and this time it is south of the border.  And it is a direct result of the bitter Scottish campaign, in the course of which the leading politicians of the UK, panicked by the prospects of a ‘Yes’ vote, promised yet more devolved powers to the Scots. 

So it has come about that, while nearly half of Scotland has slinked off into a corner to sulk, the quiet, tolerant, stoical, dull English have been aroused from their usual political torpor, to take up where the Scots left off. 

Not the Welsh nationalists, mind, who would have surprised no one by demanding political status equivalent to what’s just been pledged to the Scots.  Nor even the Irish of the six northern counties, who have been squabbling and killing themselves across a religious and social divide for the past century.  No, all the noise is now coming from those long-suffering English, who finally seem to have decided that ‘enough is enough’ in their efforts to placate the troublesome, ungrateful Celtic tribes who, they are convinced, either hate their English guts on principle, or who simply wish to take British government for whatever they can get out of it. 

Anyway, the weird headline in my newspaper today is, “English Home Rule at Heart of Tory Campaign”.  For the benefit of foreign readers – and to the extent that I understand it myself – perhaps I should explain what is going on.

The headline refers to the coming campaign for a British general election.  That is the one that sends members of parliament to Westminster from all four countries in the United Kingdom.  Which is the nub of the complaint of English voters: the general election allows all three Celtic tribes, each with its own parliament or assembly, to elect members who get to vote even on matters that affect only England, while disallowing English members to enjoy the same privilege in reverse. 

The gloating over Alex Salmond’s discomfiture has worn off.  The waves from the Scottish upheaval are now sloshing over England’s green and pleasant land.  “It’s just not cricket!” the English can now be heard yelling – or at least mumbling into their teacups. 

Prime Minister David Cameron agrees.  Or, to state the case more cynically, Mr. Cameron is prepared to agree, if only in order to stir the pot to his own and his party’s electoral advantage.  For if the 59 Scottish MPs, most of them Labour members, were to be excluded from the Westminster parliament, the Conservatives would have a head start in this and future elections.  And even if they were not excluded altogether, but simply barred from voting on purely English matters, Mr. Cameron could still present himself as a staunch defender of the poor, unfairly treated, and undeservedly disadvantaged English.     

Cameron, in endorsing this position, has put the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, on the spot.  If Miliband agrees with the Prime Minister’s position, he endorses the loss of dozens of parliamentary seats.  If he opposes it, he’s kow-towing to Celtic agitators at the expense of English voters (many of them Labour supporters just waiting for an excuse to defect, if not to the Tories, then to UKIP). 

Nice one, David.

Underlying this political bun-fight, of course, is the serious question of how the United Kingdom ought to be governed.  It’s a question that few bothered to ask until Salmond and friends prised open the shortbread tin and let out the kilted genie.  Salmond, by the way, is now demanding that the English deliver the additional devolved powers promised, evidently with a view to putting Scotland in such a position of self-sufficiency that full independence would be but a short and logical next step.  And after that, methinks, a Republic.

This could be turned into a television serial.  It might be as long-running as Downton Abbey – especially as the script-writers are working on the plot as they go along, with little idea of what the ending should be.

How piquant, and how utterly ironic, that the world’s most long-standing, stable and admired democracy should now find itself, like some third-world nation freed from the shackles of Empire, trying to work out what its constitutional future should be. 

Time someone revived that old joke, the one about Brittania waiving the rules. 

My guess is that the Queen, who no doubt caught up with her sleep over the weekend – or perhaps more likely Charles – may yet be troubled by a few more restless nights.  

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