Monday, 22 September 2014

The North Must Unite to Prevent an English Parliament

Why was power devolved to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London in the 1990s?  If it was simply about nationalism, then there is some case for an English Parliament or English Votes on English Laws (though it would no doubt be challenged in the future by a growing dissatisfied regionalism).  But that wasn't really what it was about.  It was about representation and accountability.  Scotland kept getting governments it didn't vote for, and the Westminster parliament was - in social and economic terms, rather than national terms - unrepresentative.  Of course, this has always been true of some of the regions of England too.  In this article I refer to the north, but it is not exclusively a north/south issue.
But while parts of England are poorly represented by the legislature in Westminster, that parliament is far more representative of the North - in socio-economic terms - than it would be if the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs were absent.  Essentially - in practical, material ways, rather than in matters of national identity - the north of England is more like the UK than it is like England.
It is essential that Scotland gets its Devo Max, but the regions of England need to be very wary of what is termed "the English question".
The first proposal, as we have heard from David Cameron, is English Votes for English Laws.  It is, superficially, simple.  It provides an answer to the West Lothian Question, though it raises many new questions of its own.  First, it is not absolutely straight-forward which votes Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs would be excluded from.  Each piece of legislation would need to be examined in terms of jurisdiction before certain MPs were barred from participating.  To be logical and consistent there would even be laws that London MPs would be excluded from, if it was on a matter that - for their constituents - was one for the Mayor.  There would be other laws that would be just English MPs, others where the Welsh and the Northern Irish could vote, but not the Scots.  In the context of Devo Max, suddenly it would seem that there would be very little legislation that Scottish MPs would be required for.  This raises questions about their precise role, their levels of pay and their potential role in the executive.  No, English Votes for English Laws is an unworkable proposal designed purely for Conservative political advantage and to embarrass the Labour Party.  It is not a serious constitutional proposal.
Some ask for an English Parliament. On the face of it, this is more logical and coherent.  But before we even consider the  Northern Question (a question that will not go away with any "English solution") it is a bizarre notion.  England makes up the bulk of the UK.  A devolved English parliament and executive would be a hugely powerful body, with an English First Minister challenging the authority of a UK Prime Minister.  Imagine the scenario of coalition Prime Minister Ed Miliband, trying to deal with First Minister Boris Johnson...  If the English executive had the same devolved powers as the Scottish one, just what would be the role of the "federal government" in Whitehall?
The only answer to the question that actually makes any sense is a regional one, but we cannot escape the reality that there is more appetite for this in the north (and perhaps the far south west) than elsewhere in the country.  While the internet might be full of calls for "Home Rule for Yorkshire" it is not full of calls for "Home Rule for the South East (Excluding London)."
For that reason, the "easier" answers based on devolution to England, rather than devolution in England might well be the ones to gather momentum.  This must be resisted.  An English answer to this constitutional puzzle will be one that sees a worse deal for provincial England.  If Westminster is socially unrepresentative of the UK (and it is) an English Parliament can only intensify this.  The easy answers to "the English question" only raise "the Northern question".  There will be a wide range of views on regional devolution, from those seeking regional assemblies and executives akin to the national ones in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to those seeking to empower "city regions" and local councils.  I know which approach I would prefer, but those debates are for the years to come.  What is most important now is to resist this rich man's parliament that the Tories are trying to create.
So let's join together and speak with one voice, whether it's to David Cameron or to Miliband's constitutional convention: the north of England wants no part of an English Parliament and, in the absence of regional devolution, would prefer to be represented by all UK MPs than just by English ones.

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