The Challenges Facing the Constitutional Convention

09/10/2012 17:28 BST | Updated 09/12/2012 10:12 GMT

The Telegraph carries the news that David Cameron, supported by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, is planning to set up a permanent constitutional convention to draw up a devolution settlement that accommodates a pan-UK perspective. Apparently, the PM has called the Scotland Act the limit of "bilateral devolution", negotiated between Westminster and Holyrood without considering the wider impact of constitutional change.

This joined-up approach to devolution policy is long past due. The flaws of the bilateral model have come under scrutiny during the push by nationalists to get 'devo-max' included on the 2014 referendum ballot. Opponents of such a move correctly pointed out that you cannot have a unilateral declaration of devolution without consulting the rest of the UK. Once the impact on the rest of the country entered the debate, something along the lines of this convention was surely inevitable.

The problems that they will face will be difficult. Its core aim - to end the destabilising imbalance in our current constitutional settlement that nationalists can continually exploit - is bedevilled by the lack of easy options. Devolution of taxes - specifically, which taxes are devolved - must be carefully handled to prevent the UK becoming a patchwork of competing jurisdictions. The role of Westminster must be addressed - and from the language about defending the "essential characteristics (that) define the unitary state", it will be.

The West Lothian Question, decades on, is no easier to answer. An English parliament has its proponents, but there is no precedent for a single devolved institution constituting such a vast proportion of the larger state, and it may prove more dangerous to the health of the union than the Scottish National Party. Moreover, such a parliament would not bring government much closer to the rest of England than Westminster currently does. Meaningful devolution on regional lines is an option, but then you hit the thorny issue of revenue distribution - how do you balance the need to make regional government accountable for raising revenue with the vast wealth disparities between them?

As for creating second class MPs by having Westminster legislation only voted on by those whose constituencies are covered by it, Labour is resolutely opposed, and have unlikely bedfellows in the Democratic Unionists. Neither wish to see the role of their non-English MPs diminished.

Labour at least can draw upon some very old arguments in support of its case. When Irish Home Rule was being debated under William Gladstone, he considered the option of allowing a cohort of Irish MPs to vote on issues that effected Ireland but exclude them from issues devolved to the Dublin parliament. Vernon Bogdanor outlines the problem with this in his 2001 book, Devolution in the United Kingdom:

"The 'in and out' proposal would bifurcate the government of Britain since there might be one government with the Irish MPs present - a Liberal-Irish government - on foreign and colonial affairs, and a government of the opposite political colour - a Conservative government - for domestic English, Scottish and Welsh affairs. The 'in and out' proposal would thus undermine the principle of collective responsibility according to which a government must stand or fall as a whole, and therefore command a majority on all the issues that came before parliament, not just a selection of them."

Despite these problems, the establishment of a convention to address them properly is a very welcome development. The current imbalance in our constitutional arrangements - and the instability and perceived injustice that flows from it - are the result of too many attempts to think about devolution in the narrow terms of the relationship between the country concerned and Westminster, and quietly ignore the mounting contradictions. We won't find any answers to the tough questions until we face up to them, and the Prime Minister must ensure his convention does that.