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The English Question: Devolution or Divorce?


It is now more than 100 years since the ‘English Question’ started to be debated, with Gladstone’s first attempt at devolution. However, it was not until the 1970s when it was properly put on the agenda by Labour. Often referred to as ‘The West Lothian Question’, the issue refers to asymmetric devolution i.e. the fact that Scotland and Wales have increasingly devolved powers, but England is governed only from Westminster. Since the Scottish Referendum on independence last year, there have been renewed calls for ‘English votes for English laws’. But how would this work? And, in practise, would it be a wise idea? With the launch today of the Conservative manifesto for England we thought it would be interesting, and fitting, to explore some of these questions.

The argument (one that is gaining mass public support) is that it is unfair for England to only have one parliament (Westminster) when Scotland has the Scottish Parliament and Wales has the Welsh Assembly, as well as Westminster. Furthermore, how can it be logical that Scottish and Welsh MPs can vote on matters that only affect England, but English MPs do not vote on matters that affect the other nations that make up the UK? The imbalance has been brought into stark relief following the recent statement from Alex Salmond that the SNP would expect to have a say on the vast majority of legislation put forward by a minority Labour government — even laws that related only to England and Wales. In order to ‘fix’ this problem, a separate English Parliament could be established aside from Westminster (which would certainly give the impression of fixing the asymmetry that currently exists in the United Kingdom), or new legislation that only English MPs can vote on ‘English’ laws.

There are, however, serious flaws in both these plans. First, as Robert Hazell points out in his essay ‘The English Question’, there are technical difficulties in defining what actually is an ‘English’ law – in a Westminster statute sense there are actually no ‘English’ laws i.e. laws that apply only to the country: “The territorial extent clauses in Westminster statutes typically extend to the United Kingdom, Great Britain or England and Wales”. Hazell argues that the Speaker could determine clauses or amendments which would only pertain to England. This difficulty is not new, Gladstone realised this would be an issue in 1893 with his ‘in and out’ proposal for Ireland – Irish MPs could vote on imperial matters but not domestic ones. Gladstone’s key arguments behind why the bill would not work were that the Speaker would never be able to definitively prove what was an imperial or a domestic issue and; “that if the Commons majority on an imperial question was of a different partisan complexion to the majority on a domestic question, the Government (however it was made up) would be unable to carry the Commons on one class of bill.” Gladstone’s ‘in and out’ bill was therefore withdrawn before it had even gone through the House.

Secondly, even without the implementation of a separate English Parliament, the new voting system would in essence create two tiers of MPs, and end the historic tradition of reciprocity, with all members voting on all issues. This could also lead to substantial political instability – a Russian-doll parliament within a parliament effect.

Finally, given the disproportionate size of England compared to Scotland and Wales, changes would have to be made one way or another to prevent England from holding too much power. With 85% of the population of the UK, England is obviously the largest player in the union. By contrast, it has been argued for some time that Scotland (with its diminishing population) and Wales are overrepresented in the Commons. Iain McClean proposes two ‘solutions’ in his paper ‘Barnett and the West Lothian Question’: “the further reduction of representation for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (and London?), and serious reconstruction of Parliament and Government, so as to distinguish their roles as the Parliament and Government of the UK and as Parliament and Government of England. At a minimum, this would involve the appointment of a First Minister and executive for England, and a recognition that, in the hard case when the UK parliamentary majority differed from the English parliamentary majority, the First Minister and his/her administration would be from a different party to the UK Prime Minister and government.”

It will be particularly interesting to see how this issue will play out after the election. If Labour wins by a slim majority, or indeed needs to form a coalition, and relies on Scottish and/or Welsh MPs’ support to get legislation through, there could be a renewed groundswell of opinion over an English Parliament. Labour, given their number of MPs outside England, rely far more heavily on those other nations to form a government. Conservatives, by contrast, have a power base drawn much more from England. A 2008 poll revealed that only 32% of Conservative members thought England should have its own parliament; by 2010 this figure had reached 51%. This follows a growing sense of ‘English’ identity, rather than a ‘British’ one, a potential resentment over devolution to Scotland and Wales and the seemingly ‘unfair’ constitutional situation the English find themselves in. Ultimately, as Michael Kenny points out, growing ‘Englishness’ reflects “deepening disenchantment with representative politics, a rising sense of cultural anxiety and a growing demand for ‘recognition’ in political life.”

The ‘English’ question is not an easily solvable one, and the questions it raises reflect just how complex multi-nation politics has become in the United Kingdom. What is clear is that there is a growing call for a separate English national identity with recognised devolved powers such as have been awarded to Wales and Scotland. How such devolution would be implemented, and would play out, remains to be seen.

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