The English Question

The Prime Minister's statement, in response to Scotland's 'no' vote, that 'a new and fair settlement for Scotland should be accompanied by a new and fair settlement that applies to all parts of our United Kingdom' is welcome and right. Now we have to work out what devolution in England will look like.

The PM said that 'the question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer' and that '... just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland.'

Of course, Scotland has its own Parliament, not just Scottish votes for Scottish laws. Does balanced devolution now require an English Parliament? John Redwood makes a neat proposal that Westminster's MPs representing English constituencies could also sit for an English Parliament, saving a new tier of politicians, and so we could. But an English Parliament raises big questions about the government of England. After all, the Scots have their own government and a First Minister.

I touch on these issues in my book 'Why Vote Conservative 2015' which will be published in a fortnight's time. Here's the relevant extract:

That Scottish nationalism arose with such force is a symptom of the lopsided nature of devolution in the UK. Though the Scottish government has broad powers to enact policy (by some measures wider than those granted to German Länder or Spanish ‘autonomous communities’), it will not be responsible for raising money to pay for them until 2016, when a Scottish income tax will be introduced. This asymmetry precludes a proper debate on fiscal policy and the role of government, while providing nationalists with the ability to blame funding shortfalls on an ‘English’ government in Westminster.

The effects of this asymmetry provide an important lesson for the further devolution which, if Scotland has voted ‘No’, is now inevitable in that country and which, in turn, raises the question of what should happen in England. The well-known West Lothian question, which identifies that Scottish and Welsh MPs can vote on English matters, but English MPs cannot vote on Scottish or Welsh matters, will have to be solved. But so, too, should the remoteness of English government from the English people.

Under current constitutional arrangements, it is quite likely that a government could be elected to office with the support of Scottish and Welsh MPs, despite lacking majority support in England. When the reverse occurred it stimulated the growth of nationalist sentiment in Scotland that was only partially dampened by devolution. It is not hard to imagine a government with a majority derived from its strength outside England imposing taxes that would be borne disproportionately by English taxpayers to finance policies of which English voters disapproved. Such situations would provide fertile soil for an English nationalism every bit as destructive of the Union as the Scottish and Welsh kind. Preserving the Union – our country – therefore requires significant constitutional change.

A minimalist solution of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ has much to recommend it. It fits in with the British tradition of constitutional evolution where constitutional changes are made incrementally, and with minimal disturbance, and therefore with political practice, instead of imposing abstract theoretical models of political order at the expense of good government. It dispenses with the need to create a wholly new institution and provide salaries for a further set of politicians. It is immune from what might be called the ‘Prussian Question’, when one unit in a formally federal country exerts disproportionate influence over the others due to its sheer size, as Prussia did in Bismarck’s Reich.

A more radical alternative would be a fully federal UK, in which an English Parliament, comparable to the Scottish, was set up (with the assemblies of Northern Ireland and Wales becoming similar parliaments). Such a scheme would see the federal government of the United Kingdom retaining responsibility for areas such as foreign affairs, defence, immigration, overall macroeconomic policy and international trade, while an English Parliament, like the Scottish from 2016, would be able to raise its own taxes. The boundaries of jurisdiction would be settled by the UK Supreme Court, as they currently are between London and Scotland.

Either solution would raise the possibility of an English majority, quite possibly Conservative, being at odds with a UK majority. A fully federal system would expose these differences more clearly: there could be a Labour Prime Minister of the UK and a Conservative First Minister of England. The question, then, is which is more likely to provide a focus for a now latent but potentially damaging English nationalism: an arrangement that continues to ignore English claims, or one that answers them. What is clear is that this is no longer only a Scottish, or for that matter, a Welsh or Northern Irish question. Disraeli’s observation that ‘I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad’ is the beginning of wisdom in this debate. We should no longer allow hot-headed nationalism to dominate it. A constitutional convention is needed to examine the issues.

Devolution in England should also mean more powers to our cities and counties, and it was encouraging that the PM also said there would be further announcements 'in the coming days' about 'how to empower our great cities'. I call for a determined new drive for localism in my book - and I think it should go a lot further than our cities.

Some in the Labour Party have already tried to suggest that regional or city devolution is all that is needed to answer the demand for England to have a greater say. Graham Allen MP, for instance, who is Chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, tweeted:

An English Parliament would not deliver devolution but defer it. Devolution can only be delivered by local powers not by rehashIng Westminster.

I disagree, as I suspect will most Tories. Renewed localism is necessary, but not sufficient. We also need a proper answer to the English question.

BlogNick HerbertComment