West Lothian, a Scot for PM and other problems: the obvious answer

Why should Scottish MPs vote in the House of Commons on legislation that affects only England when English MPs can't vote on Scottish matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament (Tam Dalyell's 'West Lothian Question')?  Should the MPs for English constituencies form a kind of English Grand Committee to deliberate on matters affecting only England?  How can Gordon Brown, a Scot representing a Scottish constituency, preside (if Mr Tony ever allows him to) over a government responsible for legislation affecting only England, when his government and the Westminster Parliament can't legislate for Scotland on identical matters?  Now that Scotland, Wales and (soon, with luck) Northern Ireland have their own assemblies, quasi-legislatures or the real thing, with varying powers, why doesn't England have the same thing?  Why hasn't the devolution to Scotland of fairly extensive powers blunted the appetite for Scotland to secede from the UK as an independent state, an increasingly strongly supported idea according to the opinion polls?

There's actually a remarkably simple diagnosis available for all these current teasers, and an equally simple cure for them.  Today's Independent newspaper publishes my letter setting out both diagnosis and cure: 

Letters: Genuine democracy
The Independent, 31 January 2007
A federal system in the UK would deliver genuine democracy

Sir: Rising support for Scottish independence and a parliament for England threatens the Union, but none of the solutions currently being discussed tackles the underlying problem. Even the radical but piecemeal reforms proposed by Helena Kennedy and her Power Inquiry ("Hand over some power to the people", 23 January) don't amount to a real overhaul of our outdated constitutional arrangements sufficient to revive genuine popular democracy.  Devolution has moved us half-way, but only half-way, into a federal system, with the Westminster parliament trying vainly to function both as an all-UK federal legislature and simultaneously as a parliament for England, with no definition or restriction of its powers in either capacity, and a membership incompatible with the latter.

The only durable answer to the many questions this raises is a separate second-tier parliament for England, with the Westminster parliament becoming a first-tier, all-UK federal body exercising defined and limited responsibilities, mainly for foreign affairs, defence, human rights and regional policy, plus any other powers voluntarily ceded to the centre by the four national bodies. All residual powers (i.e. effectively all domestic matters) would be devolved to the four "national" (second-tier) parliaments and governments.  This transfer of full internal autonomy, much more than at present, to Scotland and the other three UK nations should satisfy most Scottish and other nationalists, meet the demand for an English parliament, bring government much closer to the people, definitively answer the West Lothian Question – and, best of all, preserve the Union. It would supply a vital role for the federal second chamber as a Senate of the Four Nations. It would cure us forever of the British disease of over-centralisation.

Federation works for the US, Australia, Canada, Germany and many others: why not for us? All it needs is some courageous political leadership, currently apparently in short supply. How about it, Mr Brown?


It's puzzling that such an obvious solution to so many of our current problems and anomalies doesn't form part of our national constitutional debate, although reality will (I'm sure) eventually force it on us.  I think the reasons for this refusal even to consider the federal solution include the fact that the Europhobes have (absurdly) demonised the concept of federalism, which they misrepresent as centralism when in fact it's the reverse; and the fear on the part of timid Labour Party leaders that full devolution to England would risk permanent Tory control of England even though Labour would probably retain control at the Federal (Westminster) level thanks to all the safe seats in Scotland and Wales.  In fact, English devolution could be a real tonic for Labour in England, forcing it to listen to the people and go out to recruit members and win seats, instead of sitting back and relying on Scotland to keep it in power at the centre. 

But the most serious inhibition smothering any discussion of a federal solution must be the recognition that the Westminster federal parliament and government would lose a vast array of powers to the four national bodies, including justice, crime, prisons, education, health, most aspects of transport, the environment (except matters affecting the whole of the UK), and many kinds of tax policy.  It's likely that Messrs Blair, Cameron and Brown, perhaps even Sir M Campbell (all Scots, incidentally), and their lieutenants would fight to the last drop of English blood to avoid having their responsibilities reduced to foreign affairs and defence, and such other matters as transcend the borders of the four nations of the kingdom.  They would see themselves as demoted: stripped of power, patronage and prestige.  Yet no-one regards the Federal President of the United States as being less powerful or prestigious than the Governors of California and West Virginia:  or the prime minister of Australia as in any sense playing second fiddle to the premiers of New South Wales and Tasmania.  These fears are fanciful.  Let's do it!


20 Responses

  1. The Campaign for an English Parliament (CEP) welcomes Brian comments and letters.  The CEP is a company limited by guarantee and was started by six ordinary but far sighted people in 1998 when they foresaw the deleterious effects asymmetrical devolution would have on England.  The CEP is not a political party but rather engages with members of all three main British Parties in order to influence them.  Over the last nine years our grass roots membership has grown and they only fund our campaign.  The membership comes from across the political spectrum but with one thing in common; concern for England.  We have never campaigned for independence but only for the permissive autonomy granted to Scotland.  Our website http://www.thecep.org.uk gives much more information about who we are.

    Scilla Cullen, Chairman of the Campaign for an English Parliament

  2. James Matthews says:

    I can disagree with little of what you say Brian. if you feel that this should form part of the national debate why not join the (non-party_ campaign for an English Parliament?

  3. Stephen Gash says:

    The English Democrats Party (not right wing, just doing the right thing) joined forces with the CEP and formed the English Constitutional Convention.


    This conducted its own poll which found 41% of people wanted an English Parliament.  Things have moved on apace since then and now according to Sunday Telegraph and BBC polls around two thirds of English People want their own Parliament.

    In fact recent polls show that around half of people now want England’s independence. Stifling public debate and desires for an English Parliament has merely resulted in calls for separatism.

    Our politicians couldn’t have handled post-devolution England worse.


  4. dearieme says:

    Bah, keep Westminster for the English parliament, build a new British parliament  in Berwick.

  5. Rose says:

    Presumably the sticking point is the sheer size of England compared with the other 3, plus the fact that the English vehemently object to any attempt to split them up into bits that would fit.

  6. Chris H says:

    Why should England split up? England has been around for a long time and the vast majority of English people do not want England to be split up into regions. The US federal system works perfectly well with different sized states, so why shouldn’t the UK?

    I expect the majority of English people would rather have full independence than have England  split up into regions.

  7. I’m in favour of this both because it is right in principle, and because it advances the cause of introducing constitutionally limited government into the UK, something which we have rather missed out on, sadly.

  8. Ian Campbell says:

    You are absolutely right, Brian, about a federal UK but you don’t mention the objection raised by all three of the ‘main’ political parties, and supported by the Constituional Unit at the School of Politics, University of London, among others. They claim that England is ‘too big’ for a UK federation to work because there is no other example in the world of a federation in which one member has 80% of the population. They overlook that there is no example either, so far as I am aware, of a Union in which one member state is so much bigger than the others – and yet the Union with Scotland has lasted for 300 years. Thus, to our political parties, a federal UK would be one in which England would be Balkanised into nine regions and allowed no voice of its own – which of course is the situation today as England as such is not represented in the EU nor in the Council of the Isles. This form of federation would complete the extinction of England as a nation and is therefore completely unacceptable. Faced with such a prospect, it would be better for England to opt for complete independence. There is already in existence an English Constitutional Convention. We need a British one as well to review the arrangements between the nations, with nothing ruled out, and the final decision to be made by the people (not by the politicians) in a series of referendums.

  9. Dee says:

    Brian, there are literally thousands of us who are actively campaigning towards the prervation of England as a whole nation and for our own Parliament.

    Gordon Brown is the one to watch for.   When he gets into power, he is determined to fracture England further and will NEVER allow us equal treatment and funding to his own nation, Scotland. 

    Under Gordon Brown, the English will be little more than Lab Rats to test out his unwanted Scottish Socialist policies and there isn’t a damned thing we can do about it, under the current undemocratic set-up, which he has deliberately inflcted upon us.

    Be in London on May 1st for the Justice for England March.  Equal treatment for England, our pensioners, students, babies and our NHS patients. 

  10. Terence Brown says:

    I think a vital aspect of the devolution process is not that it was ever considered to be a good thing for the UK (much less England) rather it was considered to be a good thing for the EU (aka United States of Europe).

    It is perhaps rather more than  co-incidence that the most vehemently anit-EU nation with in the UK (and possibly Europe) is to be split into regions so neutering its ability to speak for itself. An English parliament would blow this strategy to pieces and that is why the three main parties, Europhiles one and all, are so determined to deny England democratic parity with its neighbours.

    Thank God for the English Democrats and the Campaign for an English Parliament

  11. HomeRuleforEngland says:

    Well said Brian. I’m sure that Gordon Brown would agree with you if he was being honest(!). However that does not fit in with his PM ambitions.

    Unfortunately for him we English have sussed out his crocodile Britishness and he is in for a severe shock if he dares take up the premiership. 

  12. Patrick Harris says:

    This evil Government’s headlong race to "regionalise" England through the back door has been triggered by the imminent Local elections. The Region of London is in place, City Unitary Councils are breeding like rabbits, District Councillors are fighting to save their jobs, expences and perks while the County Councillors are falling over themselves to get more important jobs, bigger expenses and more attractive perks. None of the bastards are doing the jobs they were elected to – representing the people that voted for them. Emergency control centres are being centralised, ambulance stations are going the same way, In Portsmouth there is a big project underway to enlarge Queen Alexandra’s hospital in readiness to become the "regional hospital", Haslar hospital in Gosport will then close thereby releasing all that lovely land for development, 80,000 houses to be built in the south of Hampshire with no thought given to improving the infrastructure which is at breaking point. The only way to beat them is for every Englishman and woman to physically protest these moves in any way, by fair means or foul.

  13. Alfie says:

    Welcome to the cause Brian. I was a Labour voter for over 30 years before I woke up. I don’t know about your future voting intentions – but I will never vote for Labour again – ever. (and that goes for my extended family as well). I’ve even joined the English Democrats

    The new Labour devolution experiment has been a disaster. Blair’s legacy is at least a federal Britain – or more likely the total break up of it. Can you imagine the flawed thinking, the crass arrogance of Blair and co when they thought they could get away with giving everyone but the English some self determination. Well the genie is out of the bottle – and there is no going back. The English will have our parliament – at whatever price that is to the union. To be honest, I don’t care about the union any more – I’d like English tax money spent on people in England – and not trucked north and west to Scotland and Wales to prop up their extravagent public sectors, generous student help, old people’s residential care, free prescriptions and the ability to purchase expensive life saving drugs – all apparently not deemed sufficiently important to be given to an English population.

    The moribund claque of English MPs should hang their heads in shame as they have presided over the total emasculation of England. Thankfully, the people of England are stirring and demanding equality. The latest polls show a 62% and 68% number in favour of an English Parliament. Those people in Westminster ivory towers better start to sit up and take notice

    Constitutional department muppets like Harriet Harman and the fat control freak Charlie Falconer telling me why I cannot have an English parliament merely seals the argument. They have no credibility, no honesty, no mandate….. hopefully, in the not too distant future they’ll both have no jobs as well!


  14. Alfie,

    You're not really welcoming Brian are you? After all, I really can't see you supporting a couple of pieces of architecture essential for his federal structure.
     Firstly a federal parliament dealing with matters reserved to it, and secondly a written constitution defining each Parliament's powers. The US constitution is over three hundred years old and  the Federal government are still arguing with the States over the limits of each other's powers. Oh, and of course you will need a Supreme Court to sort this out !
    Crikey, if I wasn't enjoying my retirement so much, I would return to the law  'cos there'll be much money to made arguing these cases!
    And there's one little problem. Only UK Parliament can devolve powers and I can't see them doing it. Sorry.

    Brian writes:  I agree:  I don't think I'd get on well with Alfie, despite his (perhaps ironic?) welcome to me.  As for your own comments, Tony, you can't seriously believe, surely, that the implications of federalism which you list — continuing argument about federal versus state powers, work for lawyers, a written constitution and a Supreme Court (which we're about to have, at long last, anyway), all of them perfectly natural and actually rather beneficial features of all federal systems — are really less manageable than the problems we're currently encountering with our half-baked, half-understood, unplanned, undesigned, purposeless halfway house of a half-federation?  The stresses and strains that our present anomalous and contradictory settlement generate are beginning to threaten the basic fabric of the Union:  we can't just sit back and watch it tear.  We have been dragged into it by political leaders who still have no idea what it all entails or where it's leading.  The attempt to run the Westminster parliament with two incompatible functions (federal parliament for the whole UK and simultaneously a parliament for England, with the Westminster government likewise trying to ride two frenetic horses galloping in different directions at the same time), is plainly unsustainable: the two wholly different roles are going to have to be separated sooner or later, and that will concentrate minds, perhaps, on what our actual circumstances require.  If we weren't so smug as a nation with our contempt for foreigners and their institutions, we'd be looking at how other similar countries manage their affairs and trying to learn some lessons from them, instead of just reciting worn-out mantras like "Only [the] UK Parliament can devolve powers and I can't see them doing it" (oops: sorry), and telling ourselves that changing anything is just too difficult.  Feeble!

    I'll try to round up some of the more stimulating comments shortly (including yours, of course, Tony) and suggest some answers, either here or in a new post.  Meanwhile I'll just remind some of those others who have commented so far that the issue goes much wider and deeper than the desire for an English parliament, that English nationalism is an inadequate engine for the kind of UK-wide reform that's now required, that venomous hostilities (to the EU, to Scotland, to Gordon Brown, to 'evil politicians' and civil servants and local government, to devolution, to those who want to "break up England" or to those who don't) hinder rather than promote reasoned discussion, and that moving to a full federation is likelier to preserve and strengthen the Union, indeed would be designed specifically for that purpose, than to lead to the ultimate folly of independence for England.  (Personally, I'm inclined to blame football for a lot of this nonsense.)  

    Watch this space. 

    Up-date (19 March 07):  Now please visit http://www.barder.com/ephems/649

  15. Tim Weakley says:


    As an Englishman resident in Scotland for the past 43 years, who took a job here because that’s where the job was and who stayed because he liked the place, I’m puzzled by the current objection in some quarters to a Scottish P.M. at Westminster?   Is it simply that Blair is a pious hypocrite and Brown is both unpredictable and lacking in charisma, or is it something more than that?  I don’t recall that the disparaging remarks currently in vogue were uttered about Douglas-Home and Macmillan, nor have I read that Ramsay Macdonald, Bonar Law, Campbell-Bannerman, Rosebery,  the great Gladstone, Lord Aberdeen…. were slighted because they were Scottish.  What is biting some of my English compatriots, to whom the old (English) joke that a well-balanced Scot has a chip on both shoulders would seem more applicable? 

  16. Martin says:

    Dear Brian,

    At last, a fellow traveller in federalism! Deo Gratias!

    Federalism, real American style federalism, is the PERFECT solution to our current constitutional ailment.

    The essence of real federalism is power’s devolution to the lowest possible level. As exemplars, if Lincolnshiremen want a death penalty but Aberdonians don’t why can’t both sides have what they want? Or if Staffordshiremen want to place more emphasis on some elements of their school curriculum while Brums don’t, why can’t they?

    Why can’t  Leicestershire set its own laws on weights and measures and Cumbria elect its Chief Constable? Along with Stormont and Cardiff, the so-called ‘Scottish Parliament’, a tedious talking shop packed with cranks and rejects whose doings one largely tries to ignore, could become the equivalent of state senates. A separate English State Senate (preferably not based in London – to much power there already; it disturbs hicks like me) could be established, the House of Commons could become the equivalent of the House of Representatives (its members preferably elected on the basis of term limits) while the Lords could perform the function of the US Senate.

    There is no reason why this could not happen – all that is lacking is the will; and that, sadly, will more than likely never happen, because under our current constitutional settlement the gaining of UK wide power is a prize too glittering for all of our so-called ‘mainstream’ politicians to resist.

    Although I’m a British republican by sentiment, there is absolute no reason why such a consitutional settlement could not be a monarchy.

    FEDERALISM IS WIN WIN! The Union has too much history, and the British people have been through too much together as a team, for it all just to be tossed on the scrapheap. Our fathers must wonder what we have come to when the Union’s very future has become the ‘National Question’. The Union is our jewel, that which gives us our identity, that without which we cannot call ourselves ‘British’ and as important to us as the Constitution is to the Americans.

    We have negelected it by merely assuming it will always be there; yet where do the Hapsburgs hold power now?

    When was the Holy Roman Empire last a major force in world affairs?

    Civilisations and entities have no inherent right to exist – that’s not history, that’s Darwin. If we don’t take care of ours, we will go the way of the Parthians, Medes and Elamites; and the people whose names etched on all the war memorials in every city, town and village in this country will ultimately have died in vain.

    Some legacy.

  17. John Miles says:

    One or two pretty frivolous points:

    One, a rather jolly instance of the WL question: all this Britishness.

    Lessons in Britishness are shortly to be inflicted on our schools.

    But apparently not on Scottish – or Welsh – ones.

    What do Britophiles like Gordon Brown think about this?

    Two, if I were a Scot I'd be thinking very seriously of voting for the SNP.

    At least the Scots have a reasonably sensible alternative to New Labour; and, as they don't enjoy our gorgeous first-past-the post electoral system, it's unlikely the SNP would ever get a big enough parliamentary majority to do any serious damage.

    This Alex Salmond seems to talk reasonable sense, though of course there's no telling how cocky he might become if he ever got hold of real power.

    Three, I've heard it suggested that the Scots might combine with the Northern Irish to go independent, and  leave us and the Welsh to make our own arrangements?

    How does that grab you?

  18. Chris Abbott says:

    This is common sense. Parity for the UK nations should be something we take for granted. The NHS no longer truly exists (you can die prematurely in England for want of medication available on the NHS in Scotland), the West Lothian Question has given us Top Up Fees and Foundation Hospitals (though not at the behest of England’s MPs, who voted against them and Scotland WON’T be having them either, altough its MPs decided that England should), and the Barnett Formula is unfair – according to Lord Joel Barnett, its creator.

    Then we have hugely expensive and undemocratic regional assemblies. The North East of England voted "NO" to an assembly by 78%. It was  the only area allowed a referendum. There was a case in Shropshire a week or two back where the wishes of the electorate were ignored and plans pushed forward for a unitary authority/city region. The structure of local government in England needs debate and planning – at our own national parliament.

     As a life-long Labour voter, I’ve gone off the party a lot because of what I regard as discrimination via devolution against the people of England, and the break down of our democracy. It seems that the vast majority of politicians, from all the major parties, are in it for themselves and are further away than I can ever remember from recognising the needs of the people. New Labour needs more MPs like you, Brian.

  19. Michael Hornsby says:

    Brian, You put forward a federal state blueprint that, on paper at least, seems to be inexorable in its logic as a solution to the West Lothian Question. But you have yet to answer the point made by several of your earlier correspondents – viz.., the quite disproportionate size of England, relative to the other constituent parts of the proposed federal state. No other successful example of a federal state that I can think of accommodates an asymmetry of this order. The USA, as another correspondent mentioned, has small as well as big states, but there are 50 of them (against the four you envisage for the UK) and they balance out as a whole. In order fairly to reflect England's preponderant weight, the first-tier federal government, with its overriding powers over defence, foreign affairs and no doubt some other key areas, would have to be a largely  English body, which would tend to emphasise England's dominant role even more than is the case now. If the thing were rigged to enable the Scots, Welsh and (Northern)  Irish to punch, as it were, above their real weight, the Celtic tail would to some degree be seen to be wagging the English dog, not a prospect likely to arouse enthusiasm south of the Border and east of Offa's Dyke. One theoretical solution might be to Balkanise England into a number of statelets, each with its own provincial assembly, so as to provide a more equal balance. But why on earth should the English agree to such a dilution of their power and identity? And there would be something slightly ridiculous about breaking up what is by world standards already a small country (geographically speaking) into yet smaller units. I am with you in wishing to preserve the Union, which seems to me to have served us all well. The Scots if they were unwise enough to opt for full independence would, I think, discover very quickly the mistake they had made, but an England on its own would be a much diminished place too. The West Lothian Question is a problem, but the England Question might be an even bigger one in the federation you envisage.

    Brian writes:  I agree that this is probably the objection to the federal solution which is most often raised, although I don't think it has much merit, in fact.  I plan to set out my response to it, and to other comments and objections, in a new post shortly.  Watch this space!  (And welcome back.) 

  1. 1 February, 2007

    An English Parliament…

    An interesting convert to the cause. I would add just one more thing. The Barnett formula has to go, there should be no cross subsidies between the four Parliaments. Federal taxes pay for federal projects, local for local….

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