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.
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.