In the aftermath of Scotland’s historic independence referendum, the future of the United Kingdom’s constitution is unknown. However, the debate over constitutional reform is actually dominated by two certainties. First, one of the home nations of the United Kingdom, Scotland, will soon be given further autonomy. Second, the devolution framework has created widely acknowledged injustices to other parts of the UK, notably England. The various solutions to the ‘English Question’ have proposed either keeping power over English-only issues in the UK Parliament, dividing this power between English cities, counties or new regional assemblies or devolving it entirely to a new English Parliament.
I argue that any solution that does not recognise the United Kingdom as a union of nations, including England, is unlikely to be stable. Therefore, further devolution must be given symmetrically not only to Holyrood but also to the Senedd, Stormont and a new English Parliament. Four equally empowered parliaments would create the best conditions for strong participatory democracies and would re-frame the union and its Westminster Parliament as a joint endeavour between equal nations. The two largest political parties, Labour and the Conservatives, have a vested interest in preventing the creation of a separate English Parliament. However, if their electoral imperatives can be overcome, four equally devolved parliaments covering all of the UK would be the best way to secure a stable, harmonious union.
A robust constitutional settlement that supports rather than undermines the union must avoid the three problems that have defined British devolution so far – asymmetry, instability and selective national recognition. Asymmetry, in which power is devolved unequally to territories, creates three problems. First, it acknowledges that some parts of the UK are more in need of devolution than others and, thus, are less United Kingdom-ish, implicitly reinforcing nationalists’ claims of difference while reducing the most devolved nations’ feelings of responsibility for the health of the union. Asymmetry has created the currentahistorical and malign conception of the UK as an English project in which Scotland must be continually convinced to remain. Second, asymmetry of powers will continue to breed resentment among those who have received the least devolution, no national recognition and whose laws are partially decided by MPs that they do not elect. Finally, asymmetrical devolution gives the least devolved area the best claim to governmental positions in Westminster because more of that area’s powers reside there. Following the Scottish referendum, it will now be politically controversial ever to have a non-English Prime Minister - another step towards disunion.
Ron Davies, architect of Welsh devolution, stated that ‘devolution is a process, not an event.’ If we are to avoid this process’s logical conclusion of disunion, a remade devolution settlement must aim for a stable equilibrium in which both Westminster and the devolved parliaments are satisfied with their division of powers over the long-term. Stability is preferable to continuously increasing devolution not only because it stops the threat of secession being used as a bargaining chip in devolution negotiations but also because a static division of powers offers citizens clearer lines of democratic accountability. Stability is impossible under asymmetric devolution because the lesser-devolved parliaments will never be contented with their lot. Furthermore, stability requires devolution to all of the analogous home nations rather than selective national recognition because Scotland and Wales are unlikely to be content to be put on par with English regions. A devolution settlement is much more likely to be stable if symmetry and universal coverage are two of its defining principles because devolution then would be transformed into a constitutional issue for all citizens of the United Kingdom.
Following ‘The Vow’, the powers to be devolved to Scotland must constitute ‘devo max’. To ensure symmetry and stability, these same powers should also be given to the three other home nations. This requires empowering the three existing devolved parliaments and creating a new English Parliament. Amajority in England now supports an English Parliament, which would cater forthe long-term growth of English identity. Aside from ensuring a more harmonious union, such a parliament and its associated governmental departments could be created well away from ‘The Westminster Bubble’, for example in the North of England, thus moving the centre of British economic gravity closer to the Scottish border and perhaps offering something of a reset button for Britain’s current political discontent. The Westminster Parliament would continue to have power over all issues not covered under ‘devo max’, crucially maintaining the value of Britain’s clout in foreign affairs, its common identity in relations between the home nations and unified control over British institutions such as Sterling. Any disputes between the devolved parliaments and the Westminster Parliament could be arbitrated through the recently created UK Supreme Court. This universal framework would provide a fixed blueprint for any future British devolution, either in the case of burgeoning national identities that seek to separate from one of the home nations, such as in Cornwall, or from external additions to the UK, such as the Crown Dependencies.
While the creation of a fourth devolved parliament for England seems logical, the idea has received criticism. First, some have argued that England would dominate the other home nations if empowered through its own parliament because of its far larger size. However, English MPs can only dominate the other home nations so long as they have power over them, which is the case under the current contorted unitary system. An English Parliament within a fully devolved system would isolate the power of England’s disproportionate size to England’s borders on devolved issues. On non-devolved issues, the Westminster Parliament would also have to recognize that the United Kingdom is a union of nations, possibly through an empowered House of Lords in which no more than 50% of seats could come from one nation.
Another argument increasingly put forward by those wanting to keep the status quo is that the West Lothian question, in which Scottish MPs may vote on English matters but English MP may not vote on Scottish matters, is exaggerated because few House of Commons votes since devolution have been decided by Scottish MPs. This observation is correct but only because no general election since the devolution process started has been decided by non-English constituencies. However, when this eventuality does occur, which may be for the first time in 2015, the party of power in Westminster and subsequently all English legislation for five years will be decided by a government that England did not vote for. This would provoke a constitutional crisis that could preclude the formation of a government.
A solution to the West Lothian question that some say is more pragmatic and cheaper than an English Parliament is 'English votes on English laws' (EVEL), whereby power over English matters is not devolved but continues to be decided in the existing British House of Commons by only allowing MPs representing English constituencies to vote. The problem with this solution is that it fails even the most basic tests of democracy. The mechanism for holding the English government to account would be convoluted with the mechanism for holding the British government to account. Political rhetoric would be dominated by this accountability get-out clause. The English would have one vote for two governments. This would be particularly problematic if the English majority party is different from the British majority party, which, ironically, is the situation in which the West Lothian question is most pertinent. It would also further entrench the incorrect idea that the English are ‘the most’ British of the home nations and, thus, can, some might say arrogantly, use the British political institutions as their own. Finally, the separation of English and Scottish matters is not as clear-cut as this solution suggests, for example the Scottish block grant is based on English expenditure.
Instead of devolving to the home nations, some have proposed devolving to English regions, cities or counties. Yet, as I stated above, Scotland would make it a point of pride to have more powers than these regions, leading to asymmetry and instability. Furthermore, as the 78% No vote in the 2004 North East England referendum indicated, there is no appetite for such regional assemblies. More recently, ‘No’ won in 9 of the 11 referenda for the creation of city mayors in 2012. The resentment of those who feel English would reinforce the predictably low participation in any regional bodies. Yet these weakly legitimate governments would be highly powerful if given Holyrood’s tax-raising powers. Dividing devolved power over English issues between counties, cities or new regional assemblies would result in low political participation by citizens, a begrudged denial of English identity and the selective recognition of the home nations that has thus far resulted in destabilising asymmetry and the damaging framing of the United Kingdom as an English project.
The electoral imperatives of both the Conservatives and Labour mean that any suggestion of the creation of an English Parliament is likely to be met with resistance. The Conservatives hope to secure a remarkable win-win-win scenario though ‘English Votes for English Laws’. MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the Conservatives do worst, would be banned from voting on English issues. Also, by implementing ‘EVEL’ and framing it as English devolution, the Conservatives would be able to present themselves as the defenders of England’s interests. Most importantly, an English Parliament would almost certainly be elected by some form of proportional system, as in Wales and Scotland, robbing the Tories of their advantage under the first-past-the-post elections to the House of Commons as well as giving UKIP and others seats and the chance to frame themselves as ‘the English Party.’ The option best suiting Labour is the status quo, which they designed. Any move from the status quo would see some resolution of the West Lothian question, which, due to Labour Party popularity in Scotland and Wales, has traditionally advantaged them. Furthermore, devolution of powers away from Westminster would hurt the Labour Party because of its structural advantage in the House of Commons.Labour will oppose an English Parliament and, if it cannot keep the status quo, argue for power over English-matters to be selectively given to regional assemblies.
The inevitable reluctance of the two main parties towards the creation of an English Parliament will make transforming the United Kingdom into a union of equally empowered nations difficult. This does not bode well for unionists because denying the reality of four British nations will lead to further asymmetry and instability. Whether an English Parliament can be created depends purely on the strength of demand for it among the electorate, which remains to be seen. However, MPs such as Frank Field are already predicting that the 2015 General Election will see every English MP asked by their constituents if they support home rule for England. Perceived injustices, a growing sense of English identity and institutional logic could combine to create pressure for an English Parliament equal to Holyrood. A party looking for a genuine vision for Britain should embrace the creation of an English Parliament to settle the devolution question, improve democracy and secure the best parts of the Union’s power and identity along the way.
- This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy under a CC-BY-NC licence
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