Scotland has saved the UK: now it’s time for self-government for England

We’ve barely stepped off the roller-coaster of the Scottish independence referendum, dizzy from the sudden swoops and dives but exhilarated to have survived as a country, before we’re plunged into another heated debate on how England is to win more control over its own internal affairs to match the increased powers for the Scottish parliament promised by the three UK party leaders as the price of Scotland’s vote to remain in the United Kingdom.  Ever ready to take the low road of party political advantage at moments of historic importance for our country, David Cameron waited for hardly an hour after hearing the referendum result before announcing to the nation from No 10 Downing Street that he proposed to couple with the promised increase in devolved powers for Scotland arrangements to prevent Scottish MPs exercising their right to vote (or speak?) on legislation at Westminster affecting only England, representing this half-baked proposal as the answer to the West Lothian Question (which it certainly is not).

A slightly shortened version of my letter to the Guardian about this is published in today’s print edition of the newspaper while the full text of the letter as I submitted it appears on the Guardian’s website (here — scroll down to the third letter):

The referendum result is welcome and heartening. The prime minister’s instant reaction is neither. His false equation of the West Lothian question with “English votes on English laws” obviously foreshadows an attempt to fob us off with a clumsy constitutional fudge, pretending that MPs in English constituencies can be an acceptable substitute for an English parliament when they can provide no accountable English government, no English government departments or civil servants to staff them, no distinctive English elections, and no way of identifying draft legislation or other parliamentary business that will affect only England.

Increasing the powers of English local government bodies is similarly hopelessly inadequate. We English should refuse to accept anything short of our own parliament, with internal self-government at least equal to what is now promised to Scotland; and that inevitably requires, in turn, the extensive safeguards against English domination that only a full federal system can provide. Mr Cameron’s promise to solve these monumental constitutional issues, along with further devolution to Scotland, on the same timetable, within a few months, is frankly ludicrous.

Labour’s feeble and non-committal response to these great issues is terribly disappointing, especially after it was left to Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown to supply the intellectual and emotional case for preserving the United Kingdom. LibDem support for federalism is sound, but the LibDem voice is half-hearted and almost inaudible. We face the depressing prospect that the only political leader making the incontrovertible case for an English parliament and government is Nigel Farage. Labour needs to act urgently to prevent Ukip’s support for what plainly needs to be done becoming its kiss of death.

Brian Barder

Since I wrote my letter and submitted it to the Guardian Ed Miliband and one or two other Labour spokespersons have announced Labour’s rejection of Mr Cameron’s attempt to bounce the country into swallowing his plan for tinkering with the voting arrangements in the House of Commons by linking it to the promised timetable for more devolution of powers to Scotland and fast-tracking it through parliament before the UK general election due in May 2015.  This opposition to Cameron’s plan meets one of the points in my Guardian letter.

Even more encouragingly, Labour seems to have committed itself yesterday (also after my letter was written) to holding a national constitutional convention to consider and make recommendations for overall changes in the UK constitution, presumably including addressing the glaring anomaly whereby of the four UK nations only England, the biggest and richest of the four, still lacks its own parliament and government, the organs without which no nation can take responsibility for its own internal affairs in the way that Scotland is close to doing, with Wales and Northern Ireland not far behind.  This meets another of the central points in my Guardian letter, although some Labour statements muddy the waters by suggesting that the first task of the constitutional convention will be to consider increased powers for the English cities and regions, no doubt a commendable ambition but no substitute for the central need to establish an English parliament and government — whose responsibilities would certainly need to include the much-needed devolution of powers to the English cities and regions away from the federal centre at Westminster and from the English centre of power at Manchester or York or wherever else the English parliament and government is to be established. That kind of internal decentralisation within England is however a quite separate issue from the key question: namely, England’s need for the constitutional organs with which to govern itself.  Precisely how decentralisation within England is to work should be for decision by the English people through their own elected parliament and government, not to be dictated to us in a tearing hurry by Mr Cameron’s quasi-federal all-UK government at Westminster, whose main preoccupation is clearly to score points against Labour in the run-up to next May’s elections.

I have listed in my Guardian letter above some of the killer arguments against the Tory claim that “English votes for English laws” can ever be an acceptable substitute for the belated establishment of self-governing organs for England and the extensive devolution to them of powers over internal English affairs similar to those already enjoyed by Scotland and those about to be added.  Some other misconceptions need to be, er, scotched, if that’s the right word in present circumstances:

1.  With partial devolution to three of the four UK nations we are already more than half-way into a federal system, but one that still lacks the essential safeguards inherent in full federalism against domination of the whole federation, and of the smaller member nations, by the biggest and most powerful of them.

2.  The disproportionate size and power of England compared with the other three nations are a fact of UK life that is badly aggravated by the UK (or English?) disease of gross over-centralisation.  An article in today’s Financial Times points out the utter imbecility of having HM Treasury in Whitehall laying down, through its control of local government budgets, the frequency of garbage collections in Liverpool.  When we finally have a written federal constitution, one of its main principles (in addition to an entrenched Bill of Rights) should be to make the four national governments responsible for putting into effect in each of the four jurisdictions the principle of subsidiarity — that all decisions should be taken by  institutions as close as possible to the people who will be affected by them, right down to ward councils and village mayors.

3.  The disproportionate size and power of England compared with the other three nations  are the main reason why Britain needs a federal system, not an obstacle to federalism.  A federal constitution is essential to protect the three smaller nations against interference in their internal affairs by England or by the federal government and parliament at Westminster by laying down a well defined division of powers between the federal and national levels, and by providing for a federal second chamber in which each of the four nations has an equal number of elected representatives.

4.  There’s bound to be some danger that the English government will tend to overshadow all the other federal and national governing organs by reason of England’s size, and the repercussions of what happens in England in the rest of the UK.  But that’s a fact of geography and population which can’t be changed.  The danger should not be exaggerated:  the all-UK federal parliament and government at Westminster will have totally different powers and functions from those of the English national parliament and government at Manchester (or wherever), the latter dealing mostly with bread-and-butter issues such as health and education, the former principally with foreign affairs and defence — and with any additional subjects that the four nations agree are best handled on an all-UK basis and which they therefore devolve upwards to Westminster.  Other subjects may be shared between the two levels.  The two kinds of organ, federal and national, will attract different kinds of politician.  The experience of existing successful federations such as Australia and the US should dispel any idea that even the biggest and most powerful second-tier governments, such as those of New York State or New South Wales, will overshadow their first-tier federal opposite numbers at Washington DC or Canberra.

Once we have parliaments and governments for all four nations, we shall in effect have a federal system.  Much work will need to be done over several years to complete that process, including a written constitution and other safeguards.  That will constitute the only definitive answer to the West Lothian Question.  There will be no need to create categories of federal MP able to vote on this issue but not on that:  matters affecting only the four nations, or some of them, simply won’t be within the competence of the federal organs, and vice versa.  Other countries run successful federal systems and have solved most of the problems that federalism entails.  Let’s not try to invent the wheel.  We can learn from Australia and the US and many other models.  All it needs is boldness — a commodity not much in evidence in our present polity.


24 Responses

  1. Ken Blyth says:

    Splendid stuff. I thought I followed it all until near the end. You say “matters affecting only the four nations, or some of them, simply won’t be within the competence of the federal organs, and vice versa”. I would have thought that matters affecting all the four nations would have been the proper concern of the federal organs. I’m perhaps misunderstanding the meaning of ‘federal organs’ (and of ‘matters affecting’). And separate point – would it be right to continue to refer to ‘nations’ when one has a federation? Wouldn’t a different term be needed, as in the examples of the USA and Australia?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Ken, and apologies if my language was unclear. As I’m sure you know, the constitution of a federation includes lists of the different competencies of the two tiers of government, the upper or federal tier and the lower or national (= state in US and Australian parlance) tier. The main subjects reserved to the federal tier will normally be foreign affairs and defence, plus any other subjects that the lower tier units agree should be managed for the whole country by the federal organs (parliament, government, public service, etc.) “Residual” powers — i.e. everything not explicitly reserved to the federal level — normally rest with the second tier. This gives the constituent nations or states virtually complete control of their own internal affairs, including health, education, local government, most taxes, culture, and some areas of economic affairs except where these conflict with the federal responsibility for international trade under the foreign affairs power. Thus the federal parliament will normally not deal with subjects such as health and education, even though these affect all the second tier nations, because they are subjects reserved to the second tier nations; so the federal government and parliament have no powers to interfere with them. It follows of course that education and health and welfare policies will vary from nation to nation according to the needs and wishes of each nation’s electorate. The British will just have to get used to the resulting ‘post-code lottery’, habitually denounced by Britain’s manic centralists who prefer total uniformity from Cornwall to Orkney, imposed from Westminster. Curing Britain’s propensity for centralising everything is one of the most potent arguments for federalism — and for requiring maximum devolution within each nation.

    I see your point about the ‘nations’ of the UK, but I think the Scots and Welsh, if not the Northern Irish, would see it as a demotion if they started to be referred to as mere ‘states’ of the UK. Both terms are of course used differently in various different contexts so some ambiguity is inevitable. Canada uses ‘Provinces’, Switzerland ‘Cantons’, Germany ‘Länder’ — take your pick!

  2. Oliver Miles says:

    Your last sentence is the key. To put it another way, if the government – any government – were to come forward with a proposal for an English Parliament and a written constitution (unless of course they could do it the day after England wins the World Cup) they would suffer the same fate that John Prescott suffered with his devolution referendum in the north-east 10 years ago. I’ve no doubt that Prescott had his ear to the ground and knew how fed up the Geordies were with London. But when they were offered a spanking new assembly only 49% voted, and of them 78% against.

    After what is widely regarded as the farce of the elected Police and Crime Commissioners there is still less of a seller’s market for new ideas like that, and a Parliament and constitution are not something that can be slipped through on a good day for bad news.

    You are of course quite right that nothing will be done on the timetable now apparently proposed by Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and Brown – a resolution in the Commons on Monday and plans to be worked up by the end of October. The Circumlocution Office will see to that.

  3. Peter Hennessy has raised the objection that the disproportionate size of England makes a federal UK unworkable, but his fellow historian Linda Colley is all for it. A slightly worrying point is that Nigel Farage might support it as well.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Barrie. Please see my response at

  4. Sheila Berridge says:

    Like you I am utterly dismayed by David Cameron’s cynical and shortsighted response to the referendum result. He must have been working out this particular move even whilst he shed crocodile tears in Edinburgh about his love for country before party. I think your proposals for a federal constitution and an English parliament are sound and indeed the only thing now that can save the union in the long term. If the promises made to Scotland are not kept there will eventually have to be another referendum and this time the Scots are unlikely to give any Westminster politician the benefit of the doubt. I share your view that the English parliament should convene somewhere other than London, but where? York? too far north. Manchester? too far west. Somwhere Central would be best… Leeds or Leicester, perhaps?
    I agree that the size of England relative to the other three states presents a problem in devising a fair means of electing a federal chamber, but it should not be beyond the wit of man to find a solution.

  5. Brian says:

    Thank you for this comment, Sheila (here). I’m not worried about the risk of failure to deliver additional devolution to Scotland on a short timetable as promised by the three UK party leaders and Gordon Brown (who seems to have seamlessly slipped back into the role of national leader, illustrating the maxim that Nature abhors a vacuum). Although the four of them are not in total agreement about the precise new powers to be devolved, I suspect that they will all realise that failure to honour their promise would have really ugly political consequences for all of them, so compromise will be essential.

    As to the location of an English parliament, I think this is one of those hundreds or thousands of questions that will have to be settled at a later stage once the principle of a separate English parliament has been approved. I envisage at least one English referendum on the whole issue, perhaps several referendums spread over two or three years, and the choice of a town or city as the home of the new parliament and government might well be one of the matters to be settled in a referendum. The main thing is that it must not be in or near London, nor in the south-east, for obvious reasons.

    I agree that it will be difficult to devise a formula for representation of the four nations in the federal house of commons that should ideally reduce, while still recognising, the preponderance of the population of England. But it’s worth remembering several factors here. The present semi-federal house of commons is dominated by MPs from England but since devolution this has been much less objectionable to the three smaller nations and I think it’s generally accepted that population size must be the main determinant of relative representation, although some adjustment to reduce the proportion of English MPs might be acceptable in a federation. Secondly, England’s preponderance in the lower house of the federal parliament might not seem so threatening to the other nations when they reflect that the competences of the federal parliament — mainly foreign affairs and defence — will be greatly reduced compared with the present parliament (it won’t have any responsibilities for education, health, local government, or almost any other subjects unless the four nations agree to have particular services devolved upwards to the federal level and run on an all-UK basis). Thirdly, the scope for England to railroad its policies through the federal parliament against the opposition of the other three will be constrained by the equal representation of each of the four nations in the federal second chamber or senate, as in the US and Australia. Thus even though the English MPs will probably be able to outvote the other three nations’ MPs in the house of commons (as now), any two of the smaller nations’ senators will be able to outvote England’s senators if the fourth nation abstains. (The precise powers of the senate in relation to the house of commons will need to be determined at a later stage but they might be limited in much the way that the powers of the House of Lords are limited now.)

    All these are really things to be settled later, probably on the basis of a set of options produced by a constitutional convention, Speaker’s Conference, Royal Commission or whatever, whose proposals would be based on a series of research papers describing the pros and cons of each option, the practice in each case in other western democratic federations, and so forth. It’s going to have to take quite a long time if we’re going to be sure of getting it right.

  6. Brian says:

    Thanks for your comment at, Barrie. Peter Hennessy — sorry, Lord Hennessy — is not alone in holding that the disproportionate size of England relative to the other three nations precludes a full federal system for the UK. Professor Bogdanor often advances the same argument. Others again say that four constituent nations are too few for a proper federation. I find both arguments unconvincing. It’s the constant domination of the smaller nations by England that has brought the UK to the verge of disintegration; England’s disproportionate size is a fact of life and geography; a federal system is essential to protect the three smaller nations from interference by England in their internal affairs, as partial and patchy devolution has begun to do. IOW, England’s much greater size is a reason for completing the devolution process all the way to federalism, not an obstacle to it. (Other federations manage to accommodate very small and very large units in a single federal system without undue difficulty: we can learn from them if we are not too arrogant to accept that we can learn from other countries.) Some constitutional flexibility and innovation may be required. But there’s no reason to be defeatist about it.

    I have made the same point about Mr Farage and UKIP in my letter in today’s Guardian and in the post above. It’s essential that Labour, the father of devolution, should take the lead in setting the agenda for an English parliament and government, the final building block for full federalism.

  7. Bob McMahon says:

    Although I agree that David Cameron’s thinking behind the ‘English votes on English laws’ proposal is cynical, foolish and motivated by partisanship, we could say much the same thing about Ed Miliband’s plan to introduce regional assemblies in England, an idea he knows full well has next to no support beyond the political class. One way to ensure that areas of England beyond the south-east aren’t swamped by the London area, an English parliament could include regional committees of members of the legislature to look after their interests in a fair, balanced way. Such committees could be changed according to circumstances, changing population numbers being probably the major factor.
    Re: your third concern, Mr Barder, and the federal chamber having equal numbers of members from all four of the UK’s nations. I propose that to pass any piece of legislation in such a chamber, a majority within each national group would be required. For example, if there were 80 members (20 per nation), at least 11 from each nation would have to vote in favour in order to carry the vote. This would prevent the ‘ganging up’ on one nation that would be all too foreseeable if a straight majority were sufficient.

    To all those who say an English parliament would destabilise the Union, I disagree, for these reasons:
    The federal centre would put in checks and balances to stop this happening.
    An English parliament would probably consist almost entirely of members from Unionist parties, although a Holyrood-type voting system would probably see the LibLabCon sharing with parties like UKIP or the Greens. There might even be one or two independents, which would be no bad thing.
    The English people, at the moment, don’t want to end the Union, but it would be in the British state’s interest to start working towards the system you advocate.

    Re: Sheila Berridge’s last comment. Maybe we should get a woman to find a solution, but make sure she has no party affiliation. That way, the job might be done properly.

    Mr Barder, thank you for this superb, eminently sensible article. Maybe you should e-mail it to Ed Miliband and Andrew Adonis, who has just been advocating the divide-and-rule regional assemblies idea in the Guardian (Mr Adonis should do well to remember the party’s of unity and solidarity). It would be better still if you could discuss it with them personally, and let them learn from a wiser, more experienced person.

    Finally, you might have seen a recent post on Huffington Post from one Paul Embery, a leading official in the Fire Brigades Union, who is clearly thinking along similar lines. At least some people are trying to use their brains, instead of suggesting the first thing that comes into their heads.

    Brian writes: Thank you for your very generous comments, Bob. Boringly, I agree strongly with all your comments and suggestions, especially your dismissal of Ed Miliband’s talk of elected regional assemblies — which look suspiciously like another attempted but inadequate alternative to an English parliament and government. There’s obviously scope for much more decentralisation within England, overly dominated by London and the south-east, but it should be for an elected English parliament in consultation with the English electorate to decide how best this might be achieved. First things first!

    I am impressed by your idea that a majority in each of the four national groups in the federal senate should be required for the passage of any law or other measure. This might run the risk of paralysis by setting the bar for passage of any resolution or Bill too high, so there might have to be a mechanism for resolving disagreement between the groups where in one particular group there is no majority in favour. But this is just one more issue among the hundreds that will need to be debated and resolved during the long processes of consultation and decision along the winding, bumpy road to federation.

    I shall certainly look at Mr Embery’s contribution to Huffington Post on the same subject. The more of us who are singing from the same hymn-sheet (as the cliché has it), the better. As for getting the attention of Mr Miliband and other Labour policy-makers for the proposals in this thread, I always ensure that my MP receives notifications of my blog posts, and as he is one of Ed Miliband’s closest friends and advisers, I sometimes urge him to show particular pieces to the Leader. Whether he ever does so, I have no idea. Like most of the current Labour leadership, he’s a thoroughly decent, liberal-minded, conscientious MP, but quite extraordinarily risk-averse.

  8. Brian says:

    Thanks for your comment (here), Oliver. I think the idea of an English parliament, separate from the parliament at Westminster, separately elected by a different electorate, exercising quite different powers and attracting a different kind of politician, is much more likely to catch the imagination and enthusiasm of the English people than Prescott’s regionalism plans, rightly or wrongly seen as an attempt to carve England up in order to reduce its weight and rights within the UK. Elected police commissioners are open to all kinds of valid objections: the only surprise is that anyone at all has bothered to vote for them.

    No doubt you’re right that any government suddenly proposing an English parliament out of the blue would be met by incomprehension, lack of interest, suspicion, or downright opposition. But we have already come a long way. When I first started to write up the case for a UK federation, necessarily including an English parliament and government, six or seven years ago, I was widely regarded as slightly or completely barmy. People — especially practising politicians — dismissed the whole idea as impossibly far-fetched, much too radical for Britain, too complicated: above all “there’s no demand for it.” Now, following the close shave with Scotland, federalism is no longer a taboo f-word. It’s bandied about now by every passing columnist and Newsnight discutant, many of them displaying an almost total ignorance of what it means. English nationalists, growing steadily in numbers and not all sprung from the loony right, have been making the case for an English parliament for many years on blogs and websites and in the press, although many of them seem indifferent to its implications for the rest of the UK, don’t extrapolate from it the need for federalism as its logical consequence, and indeed sometimes write (fatuously but with passion) in favour of ‘independence’ for England! (Ending England’s dependence on whom or what? The EU, I suppose, which takes us to UKIP. But actually they mean by English independence the dissolution of the UK, leaving the other three nations to do whatever they like so long as they stop bothering and exploiting the English.)

    All these streams feed in to what I believe is becoming a new interest in a new relationship of the four nations with each other and of all four with the UK centre at Westminster. Growing English jealousy of Scottish freedom to practise greater liberalism than England in, for example, free university tuition and free NHS prescriptions, sharpened by the almost certainly erroneous belief that the English taxpayer is paying for these Scottish goodies through England’s much resented annual subsidy to Scotland (probably imaginary), has been brought to a head in the last few days by the UK party leaders’ and Gordon Brown’s promise of very early further devolved powers for Scotland. If Scotland can have its own parliament to grant better services to Scots than we have in England, why are we in England not allowed to have our own parliament too? It’s this sentiment that has already scared the prime minister into trying to appease the mutinous English with his promise of “English votes for English laws”, an idea more full of holes than a fishing net, to compensate us for the spectacle of Scotland getting even more powers over its own affairs than we have in England.

    Against this background, I believe that public opinion in England is gradually becoming more potentially receptive than ever before to the idea of an English parliament (and government), although full-hearted acceptance of the idea, and real enthusiasm for it, still depend on a political leadership willing and able to make the case for it, to explain its implications for the future functions of the federal parliament at Westminster, to acknowledge the difficult problems that it will throw up, and to offer imaginative ideas about the processes of public consultation, education and approval at every stage over a long period. IOW, instead of political parties tamely obeying the instructions of the opinion polls, the rabid tabloids and the focus groups, the present constitutional paralysis demands inspiring, creative and courageous political leadership if we are ever to see real progress and reform. If that’s not forthcoming, the vacuum risks being filled by a perverted distortion of those qualities of leadership in the form of UKIP. Cometh the moment: but where’s the man (or woman)?

  9. Tudor Rickards says:

    I am still reflecting on the implications of the Scottish Referendum. Maybe there will be some decent examination of the tiresome West Lothian question, which always seemed to me to be without much practical significance.

    Now I’m not so sure. The specific circumstances anticipated around the next election have thrown up the tactical justification for resolving the dilemma you discuss.

    There is a more important issue concerning the effectiveness of political decision making, and the dangers of ignoring by excluding alternative views in the process (willful blindness).

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I am responding in a separate comment.

  10. As in much else, Switzerland provides a workable model for confederation. The largest canton, Zürich, has 40 times the population of the smallest canton, Uri (and 90 times the population of the smallest half canton Appenzell Innerrhoden). The population of England is 10 times the population of Scotland, 17 times the population of Wales and 30 times the population of Northern Ireland.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Barrie. Interesting point. It’s a good answer to those who say we can’t go all the way to a federal system because of the disproportionate size of England, when we already have a semi-federal constitution but without any of the safeguards provided by a fully federal system — the worst of all possible worlds. I hope we wouldn’t however emulate the Swiss in subjecting all our major political decisions to referendum!

  11. Brian says:

    @Tudor Rickards: Thanks for your comment (here). I think you underestimate the importance of the West Lothian Question, which encapsulates a central point about our present inchoate* constitutional situation — namely the impossibility of the Westminster parliament riding two totally different horses at the same time. It’s a federal legislature for the whole of the UK dealing with non-devolved subjects, and at the same time trying to be a parliament for England dealing with everything. It’s not elected for the latter role and is quite unsuitable for it in numerous ways. Hence the need to divorce the former from the latter role by setting up an English parliament and government tailor-made to do what it says on the tin. Only that can resolve the problem arising from the inherently impossible task of the Westminster organs trying to play two mutually incompatible roles at the same time with the same cast of characters. Unfortunately our tunnel-vision political leaders are too attached to their existing power structures even to think about changing them.

    *[I do mean inchoate which is nothing to do with chaotic].

  12. john sankey says:

    Dear Brian,
    I am utterly dismayed by your advocacy of a separate parliament and civil service for Engjand. I never expected to find you in bed with John Redwood and Nigel Farage.

    There seems to be a widespread assumption that the NO vote was a call for greater devolution. On the contrary, I believe the NO vote was a sign of massive distrust of the SNP and the performance of the Scottish parliament . It wqas and a vote AGAINST givinf this squeaky organ any more powers. I agree with Salmond on one thing; the last minute panic offer by the Westminster trio was irrelevant and too late to affect the vote.

    I therefore see no reason why we should be panicked by the NO vote into devising all sorts of fancy plans to meet a quite imaginary demand by “the English” (whoever they may be) for their own parliament. You rightly said there is no need to reinvent the wheel. England is a populous multi natiomal society with thousands of citizens from Wales, Northern Ireland -and Scotland- living in our mdst. They use the NHS, their children are educated here etc; why shouldn’t a relatively small number of Welsh, North Irish-yes, and Scottish MPs have a chance to air their views? Is there a single documented instance of a n educational reform or other “English” measure sought by English MPs being blocked by non-English MPs?
    Frankly, I shall be happier to see MPs from all parts of the UK participating in English matters. England is too rich and powerful to bother about devolved powers. Let us be Great Britain, not Farage’s Little England. Let us not betray those NO voters who may well be happy with the status quo and may not want more devolution. And “English” voters will not welcome cumbersome and expensive constitutional changes to solve a non-problem
    Best wishes,

    John Sankey

    PS. You must surely have had your tongue in your cheek when you referred to Australia as an ideal model for a Federation!

    Brian writes: Many thanks for this challenging contribution. I have responded in a separate comment at

  13. Brian says:

    John, thank you for this contribution. Clearly I disagree with virtually everything you say! To pick out just two of your points: it was evident from the time when the Scottish referendum was agreed, two years ago, from all the opinion polls, debates in the Scottish parliament, positions of the Scottish parties, etc., that the majority of Scottish voters wanted neither independence nor the status quo: most wanted the devolution of more powers to the Scottish parliament and government (which is actually what they are now going to get, thanks to the last-minute panic at Westminster). It’s simply not true that the majority were satisfied with the status quo. There’s also a growing demand for more devolution in Wales and N Ireland — and above all a mounting demand in England for at least as much control of our own affairs as the Scots are about to have. I know of not a single valid reason why each of the four nations should not have at least as much control over their internal affairs as (for example) the people of California or New South Wales have enjoyed for years.

    Secondly, I mean every word when I say that Australia provides an excellent model for the UK as a federal system that is combined with our own Westminster parliamentary system of government. In many ways Australia is much better governed than the UK because power is much more widely dispersed. People in Queensland or Western Australia simply wouldn’t tolerate the constant micro-management from Canberra that people all over the UK currently endure from the semi-federal government at Westminster. Devolution and eventually federation are the only reliable tools for breaking the icy grip of grossly over-centralised UK governance. Without devolution the UK would have disintegrated by now, and unless we complete the devolution process, including self-government for England, it might still do so. As you know I have spent more than seven years in total living and working in Australia, travelling widely throughout the continent, and as a result I’m an ardent if critical fan. We can and should learn a lot from our Australian mates.

    I’m afraid that must be my last word on this subject for a few weeks. Because of other commitments and a longish forthcoming absence overseas I shall not be able to respond to further comments in this or other Ephems threads. But I hope those with information or strong views, or ideally both, will continue to contribute their comments here.

  14. David says:

    A few comments from from the virile North – from a No voter.
    1. The West Lothian Question has always been something of a Tam Dalyell muddle. Scotland had devolution long before the Scottish Parliament was created. Political control was exercised by Scottish MPs in Westminster, all of them being members of “Scottish Grand.” This Committee could in theory be overruled by the full House – but never was in my experience. If David Cameron’s proposals took this form they would, as far as I can see, follow an honourable and workable precedent.
    2. The offer of further devolution had better be delivered on time and with the content promised, otherwise the contempt for Westminster in Scotland will be even worse than it was before the Referendum – and extremely destabilising. It is essential that further devolution includes Welfare and the welfare budget. Tens of thousands of voters were persuaded not just to vote but to register for the first time in exchange for the promise of a “fairer Scotland.” God knows how fairness is to be achieved, but Scottish voters had better have their representatives in Edinburgh to hold to account.
    3. The Barnet formula must be respected. It is not a quid pro quo for oil revenues, or a bribe, or an example of English largesse. It is based on objective criteria designed to ensure a fair distribution of resources.
    4. The rest of the UK doesn’t need yet another blueprint of the kind you advocate, Brian, to be endlessly debated and ultimately sidelined by a political class too venal to give up power. That was the road taken by Lords reform, wasn’t it? And guess what? We’ve ended up with a house of political appointees. Wales and Ireland should get more or less what is conceded to Scotland, if they are fools enough to want it. England can muddle through. I mean that seriously. It’s what England has always done – and does best. Decentralisation of power is what is needed. If that means elected mayors or regional assemblies or whatever else is workable – go for it. Action, not words. Oh, and stop micro-managing local authorities.
    5. A vital lesson from Scotland which you are going to hate me for mentioning, Brian, is this. We must have a fairer electoral system. Nothing has done as much to rejuvenate Scottish politics as the introduction of PR. It can’t be said of the Scottish Parliament that a party with 17% of the votes has only one representative, and therefore doesn’t exist – though it is said, in Scotland, of the Tories in Westminster.
    6. On a point of detail, avoid electoral Lists. They are a device for enabling political parties to manipulate the voters.

    Brian writes: Thank you. I don’t really see much point in starting a discussion with an apparently serious advocate of ‘muddling through’ as a preferable alternative to trying to devise rational, durable, democratic solutions to genuine problems. This sounds like the kind of deeply pessimistic, ultra-conservative, vaguely Oakeshottian philosophy on which there’s no scope for argument or debate. Oakeshott’s dismal worldview is summed up in his famous observation that “In political activity men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting point nor appointed destination.” Oh, dear. Count me out!

  15. ObiterJ says:

    1. The UK is sliding into a quasi-federal system. This is a clear consequence of devolution. A true federation ought to be established and there are examples of this – Australia, Canada etc.

    2. To establish a true federation requires the abolition of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and the establishment of (a) an English Parliament and (b) a Federal Parliament. Both of those would very probably be unicameral – (another point to be addressed)!

    3. There appears to be little appetite for English Regional Assemblies and I suspect that the establishment of an English Parliament would make such assemblies unnecessary.

    4. Here we are at the fag end of an unpopular coalition with politicians acting purely for party political purposes as they try to establish a new constitution for our nation. It’s simply not good enough and time needs to be taken to properly consider the options.

    5. I see no need to link further devolved powers to Scotland with the West Lothian question. The devolved powers must now be delivered or separatism will be fuelled further.

    6. I think there should be some form of “constitutional convention” BUT it’s role ought to be to present options to the people and to involve the people in mature debate. That might take a few years but so be it. Better that fag-packet legislation! When the convention presents the options then the people will need to vote on them.

    We have seen too much constitutional tinkering over the last 15 to 20 years. All done for short term political gain. The time is now to say enough of that. We must now do this properly for the sake of our nation and future generations.

  16. ObiterJ says:

    I believe that my views (above) are in line with those of Vernon Bogdanor in The Guardian

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I thought Professor Bogdanor’s first column-and-a-half were sound, illuminating and fatal to Mr Cameron’s EVFEL. The last half-column repeated the Professor’s familiar assertion that England doesn’t want its own parliament or federation (which I believe is ceasing to be true if it ever was, is now probably out of date, and which assumes an absence of imaginative political leadership) and accordingly goes on to propose an extremely weak form of ‘devolution’ for England, so wholly divorced from devolution as already in operation in the other three nations as to rule out any kind of federation of the four nations. That seems to me quite unnecessarily pessimistic and to lead to a quite unnecessarily unsatisfactory conclusion. I don’t think the English would accept it for a moment. Nor should we.

  17. john miles says:

    A point about the referendum I’ve not seen anyone comment on:

    Apparently the industrial areas of Glasgow and Dundee both voted Yes.
    Does this suggest New Labour may be losing its supporters to the SNP?

  18. formula57 says:

    If devo-max of some sort is good enough and appropriate for Scotland, no less should be accorded to England and so I warmly support your notion of a separate parliament for England. The necessity of then having some or other federal structure seems a proper consequence.

    Failure to address the constitutional questions that now present themselves will not only stoke resentment in Scotland, but elsewhere I would expect. And not only constitutional matters need addressing, but the fair allocation of resources (as perhaps provided for in that Vow) so whilst the Barnett formula does provide a fair basis of allocation (resting upon population proportions) it does so from a very unfair base that disadvantages all the other countries to allow Scotland an immodest share.

  19. Independent England says:

    A very good piece Brian. I just wanted to comment on John Sankey’s post as I think it shows the sort of thinking behind many who are against a separate English Parliament. He says that there are are many citizens of Scotland Wales and N.Ireland living in our midst in England and uses that fact to justify Welsh Scottish and N.Ireland MPs voting on the English NHS etc.
    Surely if people from the other nations live in England they are citizens of England? MPs elected elsewhere do not represent them. How could they? Look at it another way. Would anyone accept that, because a family from York live in Cardiff, send their children to the local school and use the Welsh NHS that would justify the MP for York having a say on the Welsh NHS and Welsh education?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I agree with your general point, but would just note that wherever you live in the UK, and assuming that you qualify for citizenship, you are a citizen of the UK, not of England or Scotland or Wales or N Ireland. In any federation — or semi-federation like ours — citizenship is a federal subject, not one for the constituent nations or states.
    As to your pseudonym (“independentengland”), I can’t attach any meaning to the concept of an “independent England”: not dependent on whom or what? If you mean an England without links to the other three UK nations, you are misusing the concept of ‘dependence’, and much worse, you are advocating the dissolution of the UK, leaving Scotland, Wales and N Ireland to float off unsupported by England into whatever other safe havens they may be able to find for themselves. In my view that would be an unqualified disaster for all the peoples of the UK, including not least for the English. I find it hard to believe that that is really what you want.

  20. David Campbell says:

    No, Brian, the course advocated in my post of 21 September is not pessimistic or incapable of debate. It’s pragmatic. It responds to British tradition and suggests a realisitic way forward. Far from being ultra-conservative, it is people- not party-centred The options open to England are dynamic and need to be watched. They will happen in an ad hoc way and will eventually add up to a form of federalism, somewhat eccentric perhaps, but workable – that is, provided voters remain vigilant, and exercise their habitual scepticism of grand designs.

    As I expected, you did not respond to my point about PR. The need to reform the First Past the Post System has been high on the agenda for years, one of the main reasons for the public’s disillusion with politicians and a major cause of Westminster’s disfunctionalism. It, too, will be dealt with (if at all) in piecemeal way. Local government would be a good starting point. Vested interests are less entrenched there.

    Brian writes: Thank you again, David. Your advocacy still fails to convince me that ‘muddling through’ is an admirable or even a defensible approach to governance, either because it’s characteristically ‘English’ (not even British?) or in spite of its Englishness. To my mind it’s a much more pernicious kind of vice Anglais than the activity usually so described.

    The electoral systems to be adopted in the various elected bodies in the eventual UK federation will be determined by the various electorates concerned. The merits and (overwhelming) demerits of PR are not relevant to this post and have anyway been exhaustively debated on this and many other blogs in the past. I will just offer the fleeting thought that after the experience of the past four years of hung parliament and coalition, only a political masochist could possibly prefer PR, which if adopted at Westminster would condemn the UK to permanent coalition or minority government, to First Past the Post, which at least offers occasional relief in the form of single-party majority government able to carry out (or to explain its failure to carry out) the promises on which it was elected. Any further thoughts about PR should please be made elsewhere.

  21. David Campbell says:

    Thanks for yesterday’s comment, Brian.

    Much as I admire the single-mindedness with which you promote your version of a Federal United Kingdom, I am not alone in thinking it unworkable. Nor do I feel inclined to apologise for drawing your attention to some of the lessons of the Scottish experience.You started it.

    And, yes, I do see pragmatism as more of an English than a British virtue. In Scotland we prefer Myth, complete with super-heros, ancient grievances and a sense of entitlement – all exacerbated by the Referendum debate. More of the same for England is unlikely to save the Union.

    I had better leave John Miles’s point about New Labour (as he insists in calling it ) to you! – but the short answer, John, is Yes.

  22. john miles says:

    “New Labour (as he insists in calling it.”
    So David Campbell.

    I do my best to call a spade a spade’

    Brian writes: Even when it’s a rake, apparently.

  23. john miles says:

    I think I’ve read somebody somewhere saying, “I haven’t left the Labour Party, The Labour Party’s left me,” or words to that effect.

    I second that.

  24. john miles says:

    “Even when it’s a rake, apparently.”

    I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong.
    A spade is one thing, a rake another.
    So you shouldn’t be too surprised if I call a spade a spade and a rake a rake, or anyway try to.
    Likewise New Labour is one thing, Labour – or, if you like, Old Labour – another.

    Naturally I’m delighted the Scots have decided to stay with us, though if I were a Scot I’d almost certainly have voted Yes
    Yet this doesn’t imply – as Mr Darling kept hammering home – there’s no turning back.

    Anyway, what do you think of the fact that many, or even most, of the voters in Scotland’s industrial areas seem to have voted Yes?

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