I’ve always liked the pomp and circumstance of the Queen’s Speech. I know it’s not some people’s cup of tea, but I think it sums up the relationship between the constitutional monarch and the elected members of the Commons.
The monarch heralds the MPs to come and hear the proposed legislation of her or his government – but they slam the door in Black Rod’s face and only then at their own convenience do they wander though in procession – opposition and government united – to listen, solemnly. Some don’t bother, but sit cantankerously on their green Commons benches, instead swapping news about Hartlepool Town or Hull Kingston Rovers.
I always thought – and still believe – that Holyrood should make far more of its annual ceremonies. By all means be more modern and do things differently – after all we don’t have in our repertoire Charles II, that Scots-born king, trying to arrest three MPs – the event that led to the staging of the Black Rod door-slamming theatrics.
But of all things that came out of Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech was how irrelevant it was in so many ways to Scottish politics. Of course, there were mentions of Scotland and making every effort to encourage us to stay in the United Kingdom, but my point is that so much of the legislation will simply not matter here.
The reason for this is simple enough: since devolution in 1999 with the opening of the Scottish Parliament it is Holyrood that has had responsibility for education, housing, health, justice, transport, local government and so many other issues. Build a new bridge, open a new school, approve a new drug, close an A&E ward, approve and fund the trams – why all of these things and more are decided at Holyrood.
For so much of what matters in our lives, the buck stops at the foot of the Royal Mile.
So when Her Majesty receives the speech from the Lord Chancellor’s purse it really contains very little about what will impact on Scotland – unless it is, for example, matters such as the economics of the whole of the United Kingdom or the defence of the realm or the state visit of the president of Singapore.
I therefore had to laugh when one SNP politician complained that Scotland was not the focus of the Queen’s Speech.
What do such self-centred nationalists want? They seem to demand an independence that keeps the Queen, keeps Scotland in Nato, has no border posts, retains the pound Sterling, keeps Eastenders and Corrie on our TV and allows us to call ourselves British – and now, even when we have our own Parliament, must have Scotland as the focus of the Queen’s Speech.
As has been said elsewhere, the nationalists are beginning to look like people who would tear up their gym membership card but still expect to get to use all the facilities – or like a husband who divorces his wife but can still visit her for dinner and expect his past conjugal rights to be available afterwards.
Earlier this week, I believe what will become a seminal moment in all of this argie-bargy took place; the Scottish Conservatives came out in favour of the Scottish Parliament having what is called fiscal autonomy. In real language it means that Holyrood will be held accountable by Scottish taxpayers for what it spends – as it will have be free to set the tax rates and then gather in the revenue for nearly 60 per cent of what it spends.
Until now, funding has been given by way of a block grant from Westminster for 95 per cent of what it spent. Needless to say, Holyrood has spent voraciously without a care in the world, like Peter Barlow might behave were he let loose in a vodka distillery. The cure for such dangerous behaviour is simple, the parliament needs to take responsibility for its actions – not take even more responsibility for what it does not have at the moment.
So now we have the main Unionist parties, Labour and Conservatives, promising to strengthen the accountability and therefore the authority of Holyrood. It is not a promise they could ever afford to break for fear of being made outcasts and losing all political credibility. They would face obliteration. Rather like what has been happening to the Liberal Democrats for breaking their promise not to have higher tuition fees. We also know that next year David Cameron is already delivering more powers – the Scotland Act 2012 – so he is believable on the issue.
The Conservatives’ decision makes the referendum contrast more stark: a yes vote for independence that has no agreed currency, no settlement on the terms of European Union membership and relies upon more immigration to fund the Scottish state pensions – or a No vote that guarantees keeping the pound, an EU membership that will be renegotiated and can be put to a vote, and pensions where the cost is shared between the whole UK – and now add to this more powers over taxes and welfare for Holyrood, without the need for an expensive break-up.
That only leaves independence delivering a nuclear free minesweeper and some embassies – for that deal I’d even put up with the occasional Cameron government.