Gordon Brown has claimed the Tories’ plan to devolve all income tax powers to the Scottish parliament amounts to a “lethal cocktail” that could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
The former prime minister, who was speaking in a special Commons debate after the Scottish independence referendum, said the Tory plans were driven by narrow partisan interestthat could lead to the accidental collapse of the UK.
Brown, who was widely credited with playing a decisive role in helping the no side win last month’s referendum, turned on the Tories after they drew a link between further devolution to Scotland and the creation of English votes for English laws at Westminster.
The Tories, drawing on the work of a commission chaired by their former leader of the Lords Lord Strathclyde, have proposed that Westminster should fulfil the devolution “vow” by the leaders of the three main UK parties to Scotland by handing all powers over the setting of income tax to Holyrood. Scottish MPs would then be banned from voting on income tax in the rest of the UK.
William Hague, the leader of the Commons, who is chairing a cabinet committee to examine English votes for English laws, said that a failure to address the West Lothian question would leave the UK in greater danger. This asks why Scottish MPs are allowed to vote on health and education in Scotland while English MPs have no say on such policy issues north of the border.
Hague told MPs: “No one is suggesting delay in the commitments we have made to Scotland … Equally it is right to address the needs of England without delaying in the coming months. I know that there are members of the house who argue that to address this question is to somehow put the UK itself at risk.
“But I say to them that the UK is in greater danger if the legitimate arguments and expectations of English decision-making, on decisions that effect only England are not responded to. Insensitivity and indifference is the danger to the union in all nations including in England.”
But the former prime minister warned that the Tory plans would pose immense danger to the UK because they would downgrade Scottish MPs. “What makes for a lethal cocktail on this is that the Conservative party wants to devolve 100% of income tax to the Scottish parliament and then immediately end the right of Scottish MPs to vote on income tax on a matter as substantial as the budget in this parliament of the UK.
“In the past any income tax rise has been based on the principle that all contribute and all benefit. Now under the Conservative proposal – including Scotland all would benefit from such a tax rise, if it was ever to happen. But only some, excluding Scotland, would contribute.
“There is no state in the world, federal or otherwise, that devolves all of income tax from the national exchequer to regional, local or national assemblies. And there is not a parliament in the world that would impose a national income tax on only some of the country but not on all of the country.”
Brown accused David Cameron of dishonesty in failing to explain his plans in clear terms to the people of Scotland during the referendum campaign.
“It is the combination of the two proposals – to devolve 100% of income tax and then to remove the right of Scottish MPs to vote on the matter at Westminster – that is absolutely lethal for the constitution.
“Scottish representatives would be able to vote on some of the business at Westminster but not all of it and would not be able to vote on some budget decisions on income tax and thus would undoubtedly become second class citizens at Westminster.
“You cannot have one UK if you have two separate classes of MPs. You cannot have representatives elected by the people who are half in, half out of the lawmaking process. Let us remember the words in the New Testament in Mark quoted by Lincoln: a house divided cannot stand and a house divided is brought into destitution.”
The former prime minister cited the US Congress to show the importance of acknowledging the special needs of minority states and nations. The founding fathers moved to bind the union together by allowing every state to elect two senators regardless of their size while the house of representatives is elected according to population size.
Brown said: “When one part of the union [England] is 84% and the others are 8% [Scotland], 5% [Wales] and 3% [Northern Ireland] respectively you cannot secure the status of each nation through a blanket uniformity of provision. The rules needed to protect the minority are bound to be different from the rules to protect the majority who can always outvote the minority in this house.”
The strongly-worded intervention suggests the UK’s main political parties are heading for a pre-election clash over the introduction of English votes for English laws after the Labour party announced that it would boycott a “Westminster stitch-up” on the issue.
As the Commons debate opened, the Labour party announced that it would refuse an invitation from William Hague to contribute to the work of a cabinet committee.
A Labour spokesperson said: “We will not be participating in a Westminster stitch-up. We think we need a constitutional convention so we can hear from all voices in England.”
Labour believes that Tory plans to introduce English votes fro English laws is designed to scupper Ed Miliband’s chances of becoming prime minister next year. Opinion polls suggest that Miliband would need the support of Scottish MPs to form a UK government.
The Lib Dems agree with the Tories on the need to devolve income tax-setting powers to Holyrood but they take a different approach on English laws. They believe that an English committee at Westminster, which should have a veto over legislation related to England, should be appointed according the overall vote share of parties rather than their number of MPs.
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