Labour is lost, but Dave has an England headache too

English devolution without an English parliament could be the mother of all constitutional messes. Labour is lost in space on all this. But does Cameron really understand what has to be done? He needs to learn from the SNP and UKIP that what people don't like is elite arrogance

Cameron has an English headache too
Robin Mitchinson
On 22 September 2014 07:30

David Cameron is peddling the line that he has the answer to the West Lothian question (which for the few uninitiated is ‘Why should Scottish MPs be allowed to vote on English-only matters when English MPs can’t vote on Scottish-only matters?’ posed by that wonderful trouble-maker, the sorely-missed Tam Dalyell).

He hasn’t yet got that answer.

The heart of the problem is that it is quite conceivable that a government in Westminster would have a majority on English-only matters but not on United Kingdom matters. We could have a Labour Prime Minister who couldn't run England. Even a self-denying ordinance by Scottish MPs would not change that.

The question can only be answered by creating an English Parliament. The UK would then have a federal system. Heaven forfend!

The reality is that the English are not much bothered by arcane constitutional questions. What they manifestly do not want is a continuation of Government from an elite clique populating the Westminster village that is contemptuous of the people, arrogant, self-serving, and self-perpetuating.

They want politicians who have at least some understanding of the lives of ordinary people, who can be trusted, and whose interests in their constituents extends beyond a General Election period.

The reason why UKIP will have a landslide in Clacton is because Douglas Carswell is an exceptional constituency MP who is widely known, gets things done, and is seen as a man of principle, a conviction politician, not a careerist or time-server. According to a recent poll, there may be a 64 percent swing to UKIP, the biggest ever in a by-election.

There could be more to come.

The people do not want years of tedious political debate on who-does-what. They want change, and on current predictions they are going to get it; it is now very likely that UKIP will win 4 or 5 seats next year. It is possible that when they see the size of the Clacton majority, more Tory MPs will do a Carswell.

But this mould-breaking was not started by UKIP.  It is Alex Salmond who should be thanked. He took over the SNP when it was on its last legs. He transformed it into the governing party in Scotland, demolishing the clammy one-party rule of the Scottish Labour Party.

As for the Lib-Dems, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in the next Parliament Clegg and Cable will be Leader and Deputy leader. As the only two Lib-Dem MPs.

Recognising this, the three Unionist parties have all promised that they will at least consider how best to grant further powers to the Scottish Parliament, even beyond those it will have when the Scotland Act of 2012 comes into force. There is much to be said for this.

In particular, the Scottish executive should have responsibility for raising most of the money it spends, rather than receiving this as a block grant from the Treasury in London. This would make for more responsible administration in Edinburgh, and might remove, or at least alleviate, an English grievance.

It is also true that further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament – and also to the Welsh Assembly, possibly to the Northern Irish one, too – would materially alter the structure of the United Kingdom. The country would end up being reshaped in an asymmetrical federal or confederal form.

This might satisfy the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, all enjoying – if that is the right word – a considerable degree of self-government. But where would it leave England?

A light would then be shone on the English question (otherwise, to repeat, known as the West Lothian question), which is something easier to state than to solve. There would be matters in the devolved parts of the UK over which Westminster and the UK government had no control.

Those same matters, notably health and education, would in England remain the responsibility of a Parliament and government drawn from all parts of the UK. They might be affected by the votes of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. Moreover, the UK government itself – especially if it was led by Labour – might have no majority on purely English matters. But the Westminster Parliament and the government drawn from its members would be England’s only political authority.

There is no evident appetite right now for an English parliament, still less for the creation of elected regional authorities. The proposal that the Speaker of the House of Commons might designate certain measures as “England only”, and debar members from the devolved parts of the Kingdom from participating in debates or voting on such measures, has its attractions.

Yet, conceivably, this might mean that a government with a majority on UK measures had no majority on England-only ones.

The English problem is already apparent. It will be more acute when more powers are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England will have to brace itself for change. Is it ready to do so?

Robin Mitchinson is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former barrister, living in the Isle of Man, he is an international public management specialist with almost two decades of experience in institutional development, decentralisation and democratisation processes. He has advised governments and major international institutions across the world

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