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The Importance of Being Frank

Frank Field's speech to Hertfordshire University should be welcomed as an important contribution to the debate on The English Question. Of particular importance is the observation that devolution is a process, not a destination, but that inevitably the destination will be an English parliament.

What's great about the speech is that it works on so many levels and will appeal to several audiences. For English nationalists it reads like a tract of English grievances against the anti-English Labour Government. For Conservatives and the BNP it reads like an instruction manual for beating New Labour on English doorsteps. For the embattled core Labour vote there is consolation in the fact that at least one Labour MP is prepared to speak out on their behalf on English issues. For die hard Unionists the gory spectre of Alex Salmond wrecking havoc with Britain is played out. And for Labour Party MPs and activists the speech is a call to arms because it raises the prospect of Labour's twin foes - the BNP and the Conservative Party - benefiting from the unanswered English Question, a question that when left unanswered will lead to the death of English Labour:

Labour stands poised at a similar juncture to that occupied by the Liberals prior to 1918. Labour has failed to represent its core vote on two issues which these voters put towards the top of their agenda. It has allowed uncontrolled immigration with its impact not just on earnings but more generally on housing, schools and other public services, to the disadvantage of working class English voters, both white and black.

For Brownites the speech is more sinister, and those that pick up on the sometimes subtle attacks on Brown's leadership will recognise this speech as a continuation of the personal vendetta between Field and Brown, again played out in public - brilliantly - by Frank. Some of the attacks on Brown are subtle, and many will not pick up on it, but Gordon Brown most certainly will.

The attack on Brown's authority begins innocuously enough with a references to Walter Bagehot and the battle between Parliament and the power of the Executive. Frank begins by telling us that Bagehot, and his Magnus Opus - The English Constitution, is important to us today because, "Bagehot made the transference of power between institutions the canvass on which he painted his whole study", and today very significant powers have been transfered from London to Brussels, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. To such an extent that in these times Bagehot would have put greater emphasis on the adjective in his title The English Constitution. Frank mentions Crossman's attempts to set up Committees (for these read an English Grand Committee) through which he hoped MPs would claw back some of the power they had lost to the Executive. Frank then mentions Lord Hailsham and the fact that "his vain attempt to to gain the keys to Number 10" has been overshadowed by his part in popularising the phrase "elected dictatorship". Ring any bells, Gordon?

A more explicit challenge to Brown's authority, and that of his Executive, comes later:

One move I would expect the Leader of the Scottish Parliament to make shortly would be to agree with the nationalist parties in Wales, and Northern Ireland that no nationalist Members who normally attend Westminster will in the future vote in the UK Parliament on those issues which have been devolved to each country’s constituent Parliament or Assembly. There is no single move which would highlight more clearly the role Scottish Labour Members of Parliament play in voting through laws which only apply to England. Gordon Brown needs to act to prevent the English question erupting in the run up to a general election.

The germ of an idea, and one to which a Scottish PM has no immunity. The Leader of the Scottish Parliament is Alex Salmond, and in the event that Salmond managed to put together a cross-party self-denying ordinance on English legislation, then Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs could be left as the only non-English MPs that vote on English legislation. How could Gordon Brown act to prevent this becoming an electoral liability? Well, there's not much he could do but ban himself and other Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English legislation; in effect instituting English Votes on English Laws as a damage limitation exercise, before the Tories even came to power; and preventing himself and some other ministers from voting on their own government's legislation. It's a ludicrous scenario but it stems from the fact that Gordon brown has no democratic mandate on English issues, a point that Frank drew attention to previously...

The content of the home affairs section of this Queen’s Speech applied in its entirety to my constituents. The same was not true for the constituents of the Rt. Hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

Again, this is "No Mandate" terrtory. Gordon Brown wrote the Queen's Speech. He exercises executive power without democratic accountability over England and the English; and this when he has not stood in a General Election as leader of the Labour Party, and when Labour received fewer English votes than the Conservatives in the 2005 General Election.

There is also, I think, a passing reference to Brown's style of government when Frank notes that Scottish citizens are treated with Lucentis for macular degeneration of the eye "while English citizens simply lose their sight awaiting action from NICE". This is the doctrine of restrained discretion for England while the freewheeling devolved nations pursue the policies that their citizens actually want and need.

Wrapping up his Bagehot theme Frank finishes with a flourish:

I believe Bagehot would today suggest that we need to understand how power has moved from the UK Parliament in a way that damages English voters.

Well said. Very well said indeed. However, it's unfortunate that Frank doesn't get the English Question right:

The debate is also beginning to centre on the fiscal discrimination currently being experienced by the English, Northern Irish and Welsh people. My constituents do not believe it is fair that they should face a constitutional discrimination as well as meeting additional costs which identical people in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, do not face. This, in a sentence, is the English Question.

The English Question, according to Prof Robert Hazell, is "not an exam question that the English are required to answer". Yes and No. Whilst it's true to say that the English could, in theory, plod on indefinately with an unsatisfactory constitution that discriminates against them, it's also becoming apparent - not least to Frank Field - that we are no longer prepared to do so. So at some point The English Question does become an exam question that the English have to answer. The English Question is about sovereignty; it's about the English deciding how they wish to be governed, internally by themselves, and externally as part of supranational states like the United Kingdom and European Union. Only the English people can answer the question. It is, or should be, a matter of popular sovereignty; a constitutional sovereignty that permits the English the right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.

So The English Question is not a debate "about the practical results of the first stage of devolution" and the consequential "inequitable treatment between my constituents and the constituents of Scottish MPs". Those are legitimate grievances Frank, and ones that you are correct to raise, but they are not The English Question.

Frank Field believes that Gordon Brown is ideally placed to resolve The English Question. Complete rot, but a nice ruse if Brown is daft enough to believe it. Gordon Brown is a Scot elected by Scots - England is none of his damn business and the English don't trust him. Frank also believes that the choice facing English voters is a choice between who should lead the debate: David Cameron or Gordon Brown. What a choice! It is the English people who must lead the debate, we cannot leave it to partisan politicians with vested interests in maintaining the power of the UK Executive and the near Lab-Con duopoly on power.

Although anti-Brown, Frank Field is till pro-Labour, and it appears that this speech is delivered in a state of anxiety about the fate of Labour rather than the fate of England. So I would hesitate to call Frank Field an English nationalist, especially as he fails to frame The English Question in terms of sovereignty. But maybe that's exactly what he wants us to think. It is a very clever speech after all.

Read the full speech here.


More from me, on this, over at Our Kingdom.

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Frank Field may well be quite

Frank Field may well be quite correct about the danger facing the Labour Party in England but a lot of what he says is simply received wisdom and pandering to the prejudice of much of the English media.

He goes on about care homes, drugs on the NHS and Universities in Scotland and how, "These advantages would be entirely acceptable if they were funded by Scottish and Welsh taxpayers."

Well sorry to contradict you Frank, but they are. Everyone in Scotland and Wales is a UK taxpayer and in Scotland the Government gets a block grant based on English spending. You can argue about the Barnett Formula used to generate the grant but once the grant is given it is fixed. All the Scottish Parliament has done is divvied up the grant in the best way it sees fit. Free care and NHS Drugs meant that money had to be taken from somewhere else in the budget and there was no magical wad of cash sent up from London to fund whatever spending spree the Scottish Government decided on despite what the ranters and foamers in the press seem to think. Frank should do a little basic research and not believe everything in the press.

" One move I would expect the Leader of the Scottish Parliament to make shortly would be to agree with the nationalist parties in Wales, and Northern Ireland that no nationalist Members who normally attend Westminster will in the future vote in the UK Parliament on those issues which have been devolved to each country’s constituent Parliament or Assembly."
Frank's a little behind with the times with this one. Neither the SNP or PC vote on English only bills. What would really hurt Labour is if the Lib-Dems and the Conservatives also pledged that their Scottish MP's would not vote on English only matters but that's never going to happen.

"The English, Welsh and citizens of Northern Ireland have as much interest and as much a right to be consulted over the break up of the Kingdom, and on what terms, as do the Scots themselves."
So if Scotland votes to leave and England, Wales and NI vote to keep it in the Union, Scotland has to stay? England, Wales and NI all have the right to vote to leave the Union but none has the right to keep the others in against their will. That would be a recipe for conflict.

I loved this bit,
"The Tories are hard-pressed to win a single seat north of the border or across the Irish Sea. All their seats bar four come from English constituencies. "
Labour have no seats in Northern Ireland, not only that, they put up no candidates in NI and had to be threatened with a racial discrimination action before they would let anyone from NI join the party. Having a go at the Conservatives when your own party is in the same situation is a bit of a hostage to fortune.

Strangely enough Frank never comes to the obvious conclusion, if England is getting such a bad deal out of keeping Scotland why not get rid of it? Of course Frank knows where the money, or more precisely the oil, is buried.
It's the speech of someone who's never bothered to check any facts.

Doug, The Scots and Welsh

Doug,

The Scots and Welsh are UK taxpayers but it's not the advantages that they fund. It's advantages that Field is complaining about.

The SNP observe a self-denying ordinance on English bills when it suits them. But sometimes, understandably, because of the Barnett Formula, they do vote on English legislation because of the knock-on effect that it has on Scottish funding.

Remove the Barnett Formula and there will be no excuse for any Scot to vote on English legislation, which is one reason why the abolition of the Barnett Formula in favour of 'fiscal federalism' is so problematic.

Toque: "Remove the Barnett

Toque:
"Remove the Barnett Formula and there will be no excuse for any Scot to vote on English legislation, which is one reason why the abolition of the Barnett Formula in favour of ‘fiscal federalism’ is so problematic."

The Barnett formula is only a multiplier of the basic grant. The grant itself is worked out for Scotland by comparison to English spending so, Barnett formula or not, English spending will still have an impact on the Scottish block grant and Scots MP's will have an interest in any changes in English spending as that will have a knock on effect on the amount of the Scottish block grant.

It will always be a block grant as Fiscal Federalism is a can of worms and it will never be implemented.

One part of Frank Field's complaints about devolution is that it has disadvantaged the English financially. There is an argument to look again at the Barnet formula as nothing can remain fixed forever but the Barnett formula was in place long before devolution and was not part of the devolution settlement. To regard the Barnett formula as a consequence of devolution betrays a lack of knowledge on the history of the measure.

A lot of his complaints such as about the drug Lucentis to alleviate macular degeneration do not come down to money, they are about different priorities and institutions in devolved administrations. The Scottish Parliament has decided to fund the NHS out of its existing block grant to provide the drug which has been passed by the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) which performs a similar role to NICE in Scotland. If you create devolved parliaments and institutions you will get differences. Frank Field seems to want a form devolution which implements the same policies and priorities regardless of the location of the parliament or assembly and the needs of its electorate. As a matter of interest, I thought that NICE had changed their stance and allowed treatment of both eyes since January 14. http://www.allaboutvision.com/conditions/amd_news.htm

On the basic principles of devolution he's also got it very wrong. The end point of the devolution process in the UK never was and will never be four parliaments, one for Scotland, one for Wales, one for NI and one for England. Devolution is where a strong central government or state grants the right to provincial local government to legislate or administrate without the need to request permission from central government. The central government structures are unchanged and it retains the right to override any decisions by the provincial governments.

The devolution model in the UK is a strong British state, which is an English state in all but name, granting powers from Westminster to what Vron Ware so charmingly described as the regional “Celtic Fringe”. Four parliaments mean federalism which involves the complete change of the central functions and structures of the British state and a weakening of the “British” identity which is used to keep the state together.

The West Lothian question is a problem for devolution and could have been sorted from the start with legislation on the rights of MP's from devolved areas of the UK but that was a change in the central functions of the government so it was avoided, following the basic principles of devolution.

The biggest problem for devolution is the awakening of the English and how they see their own identity. This awakening has been fuelled mainly by the relentless politically correct “Britishness” push by the Government as it tries to integrate immigrants into England and the background rumbling of the West Lothian Question. If the English want their own identity and parliament that's not the start of a second devolution settlement it's the end of devolution and either the creation of a federal UK or more likely the end of the UK.

Politicians such as Frank Field have never really had to think about devolution, identity and the nature of the UK before and it shows.

The Barnett Formula

The Barnett Formula automatically assigns funding to Scotland whenever money is spent in England as I understand it, whether Scotland needs that particular funding or not. For example, money for sports facilitities to be used in England for the 1012 Olympics will automatically generate the allotted Barnett proportion to Scotland whether Scotland needs sports facilities or not.
It will be interesting to see whether the reverse will be the case for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland. I doubt it. Extra money will be found for the games - out of English taxes.
Also, the National Lottery fund gives Scotland two bites at the cherry. Scottish projects may simultaneously apply for funds from the main lottery and also the Scottish lottery body. This is not so for England which naturally does not have its own representation for lottery funding. In fact anything with English in its title is seemingly automatically rejected as not be "diverse" or inclusive "enough" to merit funding.
The Barnett Formula is a bit of a smokescreen which attracts the shellfire of English resentment. All the other benefits such as job allocation go unreported. Especially if it goes wrong as did the moving of an Army HQ from Yorkshire to Scotland, only to be quietly shuffled back a couple of years later.
Recently we saw the movement of jobs from SW England to Wales with Air Sea Rescue and Armed Forces support facilities being transferred.
All this with England having no direct and distinct representation in both the UK and the EU.

The Commonwealth Games, as I

The Commonwealth Games, as I understand it, will be financed from Scottish funds and private sources. There's no Barnett Consequentials involved.

On the subject of the

On the subject of the English, Welsh and Northern Irish having a say on Scottish independence, of course you're right, Doug, that they should not have a veto on Scotland leaving the Union if that's what the Scottish people want. But Scotland's departure should be part of a comprehensive new constitutional settlement for the countries currently included in UK, as it affects them all. This settlement should be worked out and negotiated ahead of a definitive, binding referendum. It could, for instance, involve the continuing UK assuming a federal structure with three national parliaments. It's this sort of thing that should be put to the people in all four nations, with a single question such as: "Do you agree with the proposed new constitutional arrangements for the countries presently included in the United Kingdom: independence for Scotland, and a federal United Kingdom with three separate parliaments for England, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively?"

If you got a 'no' vote in any of the countries, then you'd have to go back to the negotiating table to find a proposal they could all agree with. Apart from anything else, a vote on a question such as this would be fairer to the Scottish people than one that simply asked whether they supported independence or not. This is because they'd know what sort of continuing UK, or not, an independent Scotland would have as its neighbour. Admittedly, this might not work to the favour of the SNP, as Scots might be discouraged from voting for full independence if they knew that the UK would continue without them - as opposed to if what was on offer was a British Isles of five independent nations (including the Republic of Ireland).

You could look at it as like a marriage that is being dissolved. It's better for all parties to agree the terms of its dissolution rather than for one of the spouses to just go it alone, resulting in years of acrimony and legal disputes afterwards. Especially as the marital assets need to be divvied up.

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