Thursday, April 15, 2010

The underwhelming underbelly of the Tory manifesto

Yesterday on the BBC's Campaign Show, Matthew Parris repeatedly made reference to the Tory manifesto pledge on 'English votes for English laws', suggesting he was genuinely surprised by how far it went. Having just caught up with the relevant section of the document courtesy of A Pint of Unionist Lite, I must say I'm slightly baffled as to the basis for Parris' excitement - perhaps he's just seeing what he wants to. All I can see is the reiteration of a platitude about general principles that we've heard many times before - there is absolutely no detail about an actual proposal for change. I don't think it's too hard to imagine how "new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries" could fall short of a specific bar on Scottish MPs voting on the Third Reading of such legislation. And, quite honestly, given the impact on Scotland via the Barnett Formula of much legislation that is supposedly "purely English", it may well be right if it does fall well short of that.

But this is typical of the mealy-mouthed and half-blooded nature of just about every area of the Tories' constitutional proposals. The segment on the Calman Report reminded me of Mo Mowlam's mischievous dig at the Tories' attitude towards the peace process in Northern Ireland - "I welcome their support for the Good Friday Agreement. I now look forward to that support extending to the actual contents of the Good Friday Agreement." It really is hard to see how 'support for Calman' is consistent with a pledge merely to implement their own proposals to "deal with the issues raised by Calman". The one point of potential reassurance is that there is at least now a firm pledge that these proposals will be legislated for within the lifetime of the coming parliament. But as we don't have a clue what they are, it's impossible to know if that pledge is worth the paper it's written on - if we're in for another magical mystery tour along the lines of the 1993 'Taking Stock' proposals, it could all turn out to be distinctly underwhelming.

However, the bit that made me laugh out loud related to the extension of Welsh devolution -

"We will not stand in the way of the referendum on further legislative powers requested by the Welsh assembly."

Wow. You are spoiling us with your enthusiasm for self-government, Ambassador. The truly depressing thing is that absence of direct hostility actually marks dramatic progress for the Conservative party. But can you imagine if they applied similar language to their headline policies?

"We don't have a major problem with lifting the inheritance tax threshold."

"Allowing parents to set up their own schools - och, I suppose we can live with it."

"Scrap the rise in National Insurance? Sigh. If we must..."

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