It’s the English question now, stupid

The Scottish media were a PhD dissertation about chippiness all unto themselves,” reflected Mr Blair in his memoirs, the Times editorial (£) recalled. By those standards, it seems Dave’s nervous apologia for the Union in Edinburgh fitted the bill after all, presentation wise. Substance was more problematical. In the Times (£) the august Scots unionist Magnus Linklater, conscious of every kink in the Scottish soul saw the problem of staying schtum for two whole years about devo max or (devo more.)

It was when Mr Cameron came to the political punchline that the melody wavered. Devolution, he said, “doesn’t have to be the end of the road.” Things “can be improved further.” And that means “considering what further powers could be devolved.”

This, of course, is what the majority of Scots want, and what poll after poll suggests is needed. But when he added “that must be a question for after the referendum,” he introduced a fatal element of doubt.

That referendum, after all, is not due to be held for two and a half years, if Alex Salmond remains true to his word.

Two and a half years of not knowing what the coalition government intends to offer? That hardly sounds like the clarity that Mr Cameron keeps on asking for.

When a couple contemplates divorce after long years spent together, the thing they are most likely to fall out over is money. Mr Cameron has set his face against “separation” (a word detested by the Nationalist.) He wants us to stay together for the sake of the children, and he says that if we do, then we will all be better off. That may be so, but we need to know what being better off actually means. Just saying “we’re all in this together” is no longer good enough.

Adds later.. This is precisely right.  The leading psephologist John Curtice agreed and identfied the gap in Cameron’s understanding on the Scottish identity.

…. the Unionist campaign cannot simply exhort the virtues of the UK as a whole. Rather it has to appeal to Scots’ distinctive sense of identity and demonstrate how their interests would be promoted effectively within the Union. Unionists need to be willing to wrap themselves in the Saltire as well as the Union Flag.

He gave us very little idea of how the Union would ensure that Scotland would be stronger, safer and richer in the future as opposed to what it might have delivered in the past.

One potential Unionist vision of the future that could appeal to Scots’ distinctive sense of identity would be a proposal for how the apparent aspiration of most Scots for a more powerful Scottish Parliament, if not necessarily independence, might be satisfied.

Indeed. But might this  vision translate into a  last ditch effort to save the Union  at the cost of an English backlash?  The reasons for Cameron’s reticence surfaced immediately. The Conservative and Lib Dem ranks and files are split over the extent of devolution they’re prepared to grant Scotland and the leadership are moving to reconcile them, as the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy noticed at Nick Clegg’s appearance before the Lords Constitution Committee three weeks ago when the main subject was Lords reform.

 Questioned by the Conservative former Welsh Secretary, Lord Crickhowell, the DPM agreed that what was needed was a UK-wide conversation rather than the piecemeal passing out of powers to Scotland, or Wales or Northern Ireland, without regard to the overall UK picture – hinting that a wider devolutionary settlement might eventually be needed.

This is the view the Lords constitution committee adopted today.

The committee found an option of “devolution max”, giving more tax powers to Holyrood, would set up “competing” systems within the UK…It raised doubts over whether Scotland should be allowed to make such a move. The peers also said: “Proper constitutional process requires that negotiations involving all parts of the United Kingdom precede any referendum on an agreed scheme of ‘devolution max’.”

In fact devo max for Scotland raises a whole mare’s nest of UK wide political and constitutional issues. Competing corporation tax levels would be but one of them ( and Northern Ireland’s bid remains in limbo by the way –see Devolution Matters.) Another beloved of the Conservative right is the West Lothian Question – Scottish MPs voting on English laws that don’t affect them. And if Holyrood were to win full or near full taxation and welfare powers the English clamour would become deafening.  Acute enough for a Conservative led coalition, a constitutional crisis could well follow if a future Labour government depended on Scottish MPs  to impose higher taxes on the English. This could only boost the cause of Scottish separation on both sides of the border.

So now the  West Lothian or English question may have to be answered alongside devo max for Scotland. Cameron may need those two years after all.  It is as true today as when GK Chesterton wrote it:  the people of  England have not spoken yet, not manyof them anyway, but they’re getting restive.

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  • EnglishmanInNi

    I don’t disagree that there needs to be further discussion, in the UK as a whole. However, part of me wants Scotland to be gone and have done with it.

  • Any political union that is not based on equality between its component parts is doomed to instability. Even the old monolithic UK was not truly uniform – Ireland and Scotland retained separate legal system that had to be legislated for separately, although the effects were usually equivalent.

    The problem with the current model of devolution is that the component parts are not treated equivalently – but this merely reflects the asymmetry intrinsic to the four-jurisdiction model where one jurisdiction weighs four-fifths of the total.

    So while the parts remain politically unequal, there can be no stability. But while one part remains numerically dominant, legal equivalence has an air of fiction. Trying to square this circle is the crux of the problem.

    Labour’s initial devolution plan called for English regions, and at the time I was a fan of the idea. But I’ve come round to the point of view that this is putting the cart before the horse. Better to cement the principle of legal equality first, then worry about redrawing borders later. This means an English Parliament should be created ASAP and a completely symmetrical federation enshrined in law, with the Lords finally reformed as a meaningful Senate.

    The argument that an EP is an unnecessary duplication must therefore be addressed. The easiest way would be to halve the number of English seats in Westminster (by merging adjacent constituencies) and create seats in the EP equal in number to those abolished. MPs could then choose which parliament to stand for in the subsequent election without too many turf wars. Whether to also halve the number of seats outside England would be an open question – one could argue that the smaller components need a counterweight to English domination, and indeed this was the argument used for unequal representation in the supposedly “equal” days before devolution.

    Those Westminster government departments which only look after English affairs would then be transferred wholesale to the English government. Since this administrative division is already in place, it should not be overly disruptive. The main expense would be in the setting up of the parliament itself. Obviously some staff and assets in Westminster would be surplus, but this would not cover everything. If the English parliament were located in London, say in County Hall across the river from Westminster, sharing of facilities could be maximised and the costs kept to a minimum.

    I still think the English will eventually embrace regional government, but it must be their choice. In the meantime, if unionists want to save the UK then federation is the only solution that is stable in the long term.

  • Quintin Oliver

    But what is the format for ‘English’ participation in the debate, not to mention Wales and N. Ireland?

    At least in the Stormont Castle Talks (1996-1998) the UK and Irish Governments were part of the ‘triple lock’ (alongside the NI parties, duly mandated by the 1996 Forum elections, and the people, expressing their judgement through the May 1998 Referendum, but AFTER the negotiations had concluded, enabling scrutiny of the terms of their future).

    In ‘the Scottish play’, no other parties are involved (only the SNP as the majority party, duly elected in 2011, clashing on process with the UK Coalition) – might there be a case for a ‘pre-negotiations-on-devo-max-referendum’, as de Klerk had in the last all-white poll in South Africa in 1992, and then a subsequent vote on the outcome?

  • QO,

    The debate itself should be public. If the mood is in favour of a new settlement, then I would suggest an all-party convention whose report would form the basis, the details of which could be subject to further negotiation by the political parties. The main reason that the UK and Irish governments were so heavily involved in NI was that a purely internal solution had been ruled out and an international treaty was therefore required. That is not the case here.

  • Brian Walker

    Not sure what equality means in such an asymmetrical uniion of only four such different parts.See this extract from a Scotsman article by my colleague Alan Trench.on the McKay commisssion appearing in Monitor on the Constitution Unit’s website.

    Sorting out the West Lothian question is easier said than done, though. There are three basic solutions to the problem. One is an English Parliament, within a federal structure for the United Kingdom. However, that is problematic if the goal is to maintain the Union, as so unbalanced a union (England is 85 per cent of the UK’s population) would not be stable and would probably not be sustainable. No similarly unbalanced federal system has lasted more than a few years.

    The second option is the “Stormont discount” – reducing the number of MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as happened for Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1972. The problem with that is that it means Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a reduced say on matters like health in England – but their say on non-devolved matters like defence or foreign affairs is also reduced. The Stormont discount is a blunt instrument to solve complex problems.

    The third option is “English votes for English laws” or EVEL, as promoted by the Conservatives. This is an “in and out” solution; MPs would be eligible to take part in some votes but not others, depending on the constituency they represent. It creates serious problems too; it would be very hard to implement, and creates problems of “governability” if the party with an overall majority at Westminster doesn’t also have a majority of English seats. That is a problem for Labour but not the Conservatives – Labour might be in a position to form a UK government without a majority of English seats, but the Conservatives would not.

    The practicalities of EVEL are pretty daunting too. Westminster legislation commonly touches on a variety of parts of the UK; some clauses in a typical bill will relate only to England, others to England and Wales, or Great Britain, or England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Sorting out which provisions only affect England will be quite a challenge for those in charge of drafting legislation, forcing Whitehall to change deeply-ingrained habits.

    Moreover, some legislation on devolved matters needs – under the Sewel convention – to be considered at Westminster too, so MPs from devolved governments should be entitled to vote on that. It will also be a challenge for those responsible for legislation in Parliament, who will have to make sure that the right clauses are flagged in the right way, and only those MPs eligible vote or speak on them
    Although EVEL is fraught with problems, there is little reason to believe that it is an answer to the problem with wider appeal. Even if it is the first step, it will not be the last. Data from the Institute for Public Policy Research, , suggest a growing number of English voters are concerned about the “unfairness” of the present arrangements and want something more than a limited change at Westminster. What solution they might want – or how that might work – is less clear.

    Altering Westminster procedures may be popular among Tory MPs, and appears to have much wider public support, but it does not provide a positive solution to the problems of representing England in a devolved and increasingly decentralised UK.

    However, the McKay Commission is weighted toward finding technical solutions to a narrowly defined problem. The commission’s remit limits it to looking at how the House of Commons deals with legislation.
    Moreover, the commission has been set up as a body of independent experts to advise about solutions, not to redefine the problem.

    The key decisions remain to be taken by politicians after the commission has reported. As its report is due in the next Westminster session (before May 2013), that probably means we reach decision time at some point in 2013-14. Given growing concerns in England, though, this is unlikely to be able to tackle the issues that now need to be addressed.

    Alan Trench is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, University College London

  • MrPMartin

    It is true that an English Parliament (EP) would not be a solution due to England’s size in proportion to the UK but the solution to this is to divide England into regions and impose a devolutionary settlement to each one giving each one the same powers as Scotland and increasing the status of the Welsh and NI Assembly to the same degree too.

    After that, we would have over a dozen self-governing regions of the UK, none of which on its own would constitute more than 12% of the entire UK population.

    As to how the UK federal government operations, then one can simply look to Germany to see how a well functioning Federal system works.

    Here’s a good place to start as any to read up on the German political system:

    Also, did you know the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony is a David McAllister who is a 1st generation Briton/Scot?

    I digress.

    The solution to the West Lothian question is so patently obvious (i.e. my suggestion above), that it beggars belief it hasnt been entertained or imposed.

    The German lander were imposed and they work.

  • Brian,

    Equality means that each unit has the same status within the union.

    You are right that there is no perfect solution. In choosing between them we should weigh three things:

    1. Does it solve the problem at hand?

    2. Is it deficient in principle, or merely in practice?

    3. Is it an evolutionary dead end, or does it have scope to be improved in the future?

    EVEL solves the problem at hand, but is deficient in principle, as it creates two classes of MP. It is also dangerously deficient in practice, as it raises the spectre of lame duck governments. And it is a dead end – any evolutionary attempt to rectify its problems is likely to make matters worse, not better. EVEL is by far the worst of the three options. The fact that no other country has ever tried it speaks volumes.

    The Stormont discount is neither impractical nor a dead end – after all we have been there before. It does not solve the problem at hand though – fringe MPs will still vote on England-only laws, albeit with reduced weight. But because this weight reduction applies also to UK-wide policy, it is also deficient in principle (one would expect a fair system to either favour minorities or be blind to them). The reason this worked with NI before was that NI was small and could be treated as a special case – not so with Scotland.

    A four-state federation solves the problem at hand, obviously. The division of powers is clear and principled. It has practical problems in that one component is significantly larger than the rest, however this is already the case. It opens the possibility of evolutionary reform – it is possible (though not inevitable) that English regional devolution will eventually happen. Serious consideration should perhaps be given to making London a fifth state at the outset. Once the federal framework is in place, the number of states can be changed at a later date, preferably through a defined process at the local level rather than from the top down.

    A four-state federation is therefore the least worst choice available to us if we want to do something now.

  • If any further attempt is made at the regionalisation of England (and Duchy of Cornwall) I hope people have learnt from past mistakes.

    New Labour ignored the petition of 50,000 signatures calling for a Cornish Assembly collected in 2002 instead deciding to back the South West Region as the basis of any form of devolution. I do hope that any future Labour governments don’t decide to make the same mistakes.

    You may be interested in this for some further reading:

    The Dark Side of DevolutionTop Down vs. Bottom Up Regionalism in England. Cornwall and the North East Compared. Dr. Joanie Willet (University of Exeter)Arianna Giovannini (Leeds Metropolitan University)

  • WindsorRocker

    “The German lander were imposed and they work.”

    MrPMartin – 17th @ 11.13pm

    They were imposed after the strife off WW2 to ensure that Germany never again would have an exclusively centralised government where the Fuhrerprinzip could come into play. Such conditions do not exist in England.

  • Alanbrooke


    if there’s one thing you can rely on it’s that Labour will mess it up; the current “settlement” is a dog’s dinner . Not least of the problem will be Labour trying to split england by creating divisions north versus south so they can carve out fiefdoms. They did the same in Scotland under Brown and now they are paying the price.

  • DougtheDug

    The problem with devo-max as counterweight against Scottish independence is simple. Neither the Lib-Dems, the Labour Party or the Conservative Party want it. If there was no Scottish independence referendum then devo-max would never be considered in the same was as the current devolution settlement would not have been implemented without the threat of the SNP.

    Devo-max is only considered as a defense mechanism and it is not a party or political aim of any of the big three GB parties and therefore there is no will to implement it and it will never be offered because of the horrendous amount of work necessary to work out and implement what devo-max actually means in terms of legislative, executive and financial powers for Scotland. There is also the problem as others have pointed out of getting the rest of the UK to accept a new deal for Scotland which ignores the rest of the UK.

    The SNP have always said that devo-max would go on the ballot paper if someone else writes it in and have never offered to define it themselves. Implicit in the write-in is the requirement for the legislative, executive and financial powers that devo-max would consist of to be defined by Labour, the Conservatives or the Lib-Dems and also of a promise to implement it from either Labour or the Conservatives or both.

    However despite demanding a single question in/out referendum David Cameron has just put devo-max on the ballot paper by now basing the no campaign on a, “vote no for more devolved powers”, platform. The fact the cupboard is bare in terms of policy on further devolved powers is quite apparent to all Scots and the memory of Alex Douglas Home lying to Scots that a no vote in 1979 meant more and better devolved powers later is still fresh in the minds of the Scottish electorate.

    Perhaps a good definition of devo-max is the maximum amount of power that Westminster is willing to grant Scotland. If that definition is used then we are already at devo-max give or take the mindless tinkering of the new Calman inspired Scotland Bill.

    For those who enthuse about devo-max, enjoy, we are already there.

  • Zig70

    In some ways I’m not bothered about the north being part of the UK because I’m as Irish as I could be in a UI. Irish passport, schools, sport. Not much would change except my taxes would go to a different bunch of egos (Could think of more apt words). Actually the only thing I’d want is not to have to fill my address in on websites as UK, NI would do. So maybe giving the Scots a passport could take a bit out of the nationalist sail, maybe enough. In other ways the current arrangement strangles the ability of those with Ulster’s best interests at heart to control its destiny (corporation tax). Which is part of SNP’s argument. When you draw a parallel between the current EU crisis, the hash that is being made of it and a future dev max UK then you can imagine how bad things can get for the UK. (We are the Greeks of the UK, aren’t we) We could learn lessons from places like the US, there is a vast cultural spectrum there and a common nationality, but I guess (hope) the devolution experiment has already set a doomed course for the UK, as it is the want of politicians to increase their power. Will be interesting to watch.

  • Red Lion

    We need a Royal Commision to properly investigate the best way forward for UK constitution and governance. Its a bit of a mess at the mo – west lothian question, disparities in policies between regions – eg tuition fees. etc. The English regions, some with bigger populations than Scotland, need to bridge that democratic deficit.

    Next stop – federalism.