So Cameron has tricked Scotland, Labour and the Lib Dems. He got everyone to agree on an unspecified programme of further devolution to Scotland, which may have reassured voters enough to secure a No vote. Then, at the last minute, he bolts on a condition. You can have further devolution in Scotland but only if we have English constitutional reform at the same time.
As I wrote on Friday, this is clearly just about trying to trap Ed Miliband and the Labour Party between the two unpalatable options of either accepting a reform that will wholly benefit the Tories or appearing to renege on the timetable for change promised to Scotland.
But let's look at the actual constitutional issue that Cameron claims to be addressing. He said:
We have heard the voice of Scotland - and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.
First, note the sinister rhetoric. Scotland has one voice; England has 'millions of voices'. What does this statement say except: Scotland, you've had your say, now England is going to drown you out.
But this West Lothian Question, what is it? It was first asked, in this form, during preparations for the last Scottish referendum, in the late seventies, by Tam Dalyell (Member of Parliament for the constituency of West Lothian) who wanted to know, if there is devolution, why Scottish MPs in the House of Commons would be able to vote on issues concerning England when England would have no vote in a putative Scottish Parliament. It remained a go-to argument for people who didn't like the idea of devolution; for some, it seemed to demonstrate the sheer constitutional impossibility of devolution. And then in 1998-1999 we went and had Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish devolution anyway and it didn't seem to be a problem. Until now.
I want to explore why I think this question is a bad question, because it's based on a view of politics that most of us would disagree with. I want to show why this reveals the deep incoherence of Cameron's supposedly Unionist position and then I want to be personal and say why I think our politics badly needs change.
The 'problem' seems to me to break down into two distinct questions, with different answers.
1. The asymmetry problem
In other words, if they vote in our parliament, why can't we vote in theirs?
This is an argument which doesn't understand the idea of devolution. A devolved parliament is a subsidiary parliament with distinct powers handed down to it. It's not a symmetrical relationship. It's a different level of the Executive. In effect, the UK parliament can vote in the Scottish Parliament because it sets the terms of reference, the extent of the powers, the rules of engagement.
Also, this argument seems to me to be powered by petulance and resentment. You hear it in this suggestion that Scotland will have 'all these new powers' so why can't England have them too, as if the UK parliament isn't so dominated by England that it is in effect working in England's interests most of the time. Anyway, doesn't it sound like a child's argument? 'Why do they get that? How come I didn't get that??'
2. The representation problem
In other words, why should an MP representing a Scottish constituency have any say over matters that don't concern that constituency?
This is a more serious argument and it's where we see the fundamental incoherence of the Unionist position and also the sorry state of our democracy.
First, let's look at what this means. Why shouldn't a Scottish MP vote on English issues? Surely a Scottish MP could do the reading and thinking, research, consult, and make themselves competent to express an opinion? There's no obvious bar there, unless you believe that a Scot simply cannot understand an inherently English issue, in which case you are an English Nationalist of such demented extremity that we have nothing to say to each another and I suggest you stop reading now. Actually, I think the thought underlying this argument is that a Scottish MP cannot be trusted to vote on English issues. The thought is that MPs represent their constituents and therefore they can only act in the direct interests of their constituents. So if there's an issue that does not directly affect their constituencies, their views will either be empty or perverse.
Last week, David Cameron was moist-eyed about the United Kingdom, how we have all worked together to create this great nation, that we have these shared values, history, culture, and so on. This week, he seems to think that the voters of Linlithgow can have no interest whatever in the affairs of Braintree, that nothing links the elected representative for Banff and Buchan with her counterpart in Folkestone and Hythe.
Suddenly, everything is atomised, everything is torn asunder. Cameron was full of dire warnings of the dangers of tearing apart the United Kingdom; but the view of Britain expressed in the West Lothian question fragments and fractures our common life much more profoundly and completely than any Yes vote would possibly have done.
And it's not true. Let's look at the case of George Eustice. George is the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall, a new constituency brought into being during the 2010 election. It's right near the south-western tip of England. Only St Ives and the Scilly Isles are between it and the Celtic Sea. At the end of April this year, MPs voted on the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill in the House of Commons. This is an enabling bill to permit preliminary works on a proposed high speed rail link between London and Birmingham. It's not a high speed rail link to Penryn or Falmouth; it's going to have minimal effect on his constituents. But who walked through the lobbies to vote Aye? George Eustice. And no one, to my knowledge, has raised a peep of protest about that.
(Of course, someone might say it's false to claim, as I have done, that HS2 will not have an impact on Camborne and Redruth. A high speed link between London and Birmingham will enable faster travel between the West Country and the Midlands, via London, thus helping tourism, business, etc. And yes that's surely true, but that also means that 'English votes for English laws' is meaningless: there is no law that can only affect the English because everything done in these islands ripples across these islands, and beyond.)
I don't know George Eustice, but I am sure he is an intelligent, assiduous, hard-working person who is more than competent to weigh the merits of HS2 without it needing to have a profound impact on the electors of Camborne and Redruth. In fact, having no particular dog in the fight, might he not have a certain valuable disinterested clarity that might be more difficult (but not impossible) to achieve if you are a Member representing a constituency directly affected? And if 'London-Birmingham-Corridor Votes for London-Birmingham-Corridor laws' is a stupid slogan, then so too is 'English votes for English laws'.
The assumption underlying the West Lothian Question is that we are all motivated wholly by our own interests, that we are fundamentally selfish. This idea is fundamentally incompatible with the arguments for Union that were expressed so emotionally by the three party leaders last week.
But more profoundly, the West Lothian question presumes wrongly that we cannot come together, in reason and debate, in a spirit of enquiry and active engagement, to consider questions for the good of the country as a whole. That is what government should be; that's what a parliament should be. The Executive should be a deliberative forum in which the future of this country, its values, its place in the world should be debated and made. It should be a place of high-level, open-hearted and imaginative change. And it still could be but that's not where we are right now.
The West Lothian question does point to a something true. It believes that if we are acting out of self-interest we are unable to contribute open-heartedly to rational debate. And that's right. If we speak to someone on a topic and we begin to realise that they are not judging the situation on its own merits but are silently calculating what it means for them, we will treat their contribution with caution; at some point communication with them may break down entirely. We've had decades now of governments who seem to believe the Thatcherite line that selfishness gets results; small wonder then that the vision of an MP as a rational participant in a shared activity of debating and shaping our society has been replaced by the popular image of a corrupt, ignorant, dull, conformist careerist, out for anything they can get, constantly issuing a stream of that completely impenetrable politician's bullshit which is never about saying things that might be true, and only about things that might make them stand out without getting themselves into trouble. As Armando Iannucci has written this morning, 'It's no surprise that there is steadily building up a complete and utterly bamboozled look of awed incomprehension on the public's collective face about what on earth politicians mean by what they're saying'.
Plato says, in the Republic, that the harshest punishment for smart people who don't participate in politics is they end up being governed by stupider people they are. Our politicians are not stupid but they seem to be, because they always appear unable to say what they mean and they aren't able to use their intelligence, empathy and understanding to make free judgments. Someone who can't talk rationally, who evades direct questions as a sort of instinct, always comes across as stupid or sinister or worse and that is the political class we have ended up with.
The West Lothian question takes it as read that the politics we have is the politics we will always have. It's a deeply conservative view of the world and it's the wrong question to ask and we must resist Cameron's bait-and-switch.
I've never felt more strongly in my life that politics need to be renewed. This isn't just about getting politicians to 'reconnect with ordinary men and women', another soundbite which has ended up as a way of putting something in the way of the solution rather than a solution itself.
No, we have to take control of politics. You and me. I mean this. Politics can't be left to the politicians; they have manifestly failed for a generation to engage us. If the Right has one good idea it is that we shouldn't expect government to do everything for us; but not because we should become business entrepreneurs - we have to become entrepreneurs of politics.
Scotland has just done this. The referendum debate animated the whole of Scotland. Why can't that happen in England (and Wales and Northern Ireland)? Are the Scots more intelligent than the English? Of course not. Do they care about their country more than we care about ours? I hope not but there's only one way to find out.
For instance, I feel strongly at the moment that we need proportional representation; what about you? I think we need to free politicians' ideas from overwhelming party control and create more collaboration, debate and discussion, something more free-floating than our sluggish, risk-averse, unimaginative system; I think we need to break the false connection between representative democracy and our constituency system. I think we need devolution in England, but not to some vast English parliament, but down to the metropolitan centres and regions. I think these should have tax-raising powers. This would break the absurd concentration of power, money and culture in London which is increasingly making our capital a place where only the super-rich can live and whose culture will increasingly come to express their views, to no one else's benefit. I think regional devolution would free the UK parliament to become a higher level deliberative chamber where the broadest questions about the values of the United Kingdom can be discussed openly and freely. I think we need to abolish the House of Lords; isn't it grotesque to have unelected religious figures and hereditary nobility striking down our laws? I think we might need to do something about our monarchy; I don't know what yet - there may be a role for all that ceremonial - but a constitutional convention should establish the primacy of parliament.
But that's what I think right now. I could be wrong about all of these things. I want to have the argument, hear opposing views. I want to live in a country where we all think about these things. I want to discover I'm wrong.
Our debate needs to be completely open. It needs to be a politics of the imagination. I've been a Labour Party supporter and member for almost 30 years (with an Iraq-War-inspired break) but I'm not going to assume the Labour Party must be the focus for this. It could be the Greens. It could be a new party. It might not be a political party at all. Everything should be on the table; no nostrums, no shibboleths, in fact let's not use the incomprehensible vocabulary of conventional politics at all.
Let's meet in an endless variety of forums and think together, talk and debate, discuss, passionately and sedately, over coffee and over beer, in council chambers and pubs and online and offline and in old school rooms and front rooms and marquees. Let's sit in the park and talk about voting systems. Let's drink wine under trees and ask what Britain we want to see before we die.
Let's think visually and emotionally and rationally and let's put our hearts into this.
Let's put laughter and love and beauty into our new politics.
Let's not wear suits (unless you like wearing a suit, in which case wear a suit).
Let's start again, let's be naive, let's be hopeful.
Let's imagine anything is possible and let's remember that actually anything is possible.
Let's believe these things matter and let's remember that they actually matter.
Let's not tell ourselves that it won't work; let's ask, what if it worked?
Let's not ask: but what can we do? Let's ask: and what can we do?
I mean this. I want to have a meeting, soon, with anyone who thinks we need to engage with politics and not just snipe about it from the sidelines. I don't care if it's just two of us, you and me, in a pub, because that's a start. But maybe it'll be thirty of us. Or one hundred. Or a thousand. Contact me on twitter or email me if you want to be involved. I'll sort out a room.
What's the worst that can happen? We have an evening of drinking and talking and we meet some new people. What's the best that can happen? We start something.
Let's start something.