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IPPR: Future of England in a devolved union can’t be decided by expert commission

IPPR Press Release

Future of England in a devolved union can’t be decided by expert commission

79% of English voters want Scottish MPs barred from votes on English only laws

Ahead of the launch of the UK Government’s West Lothian Question Commission this week, new polling from the think tank IPPR and Cardiff and Edinburgh Universities, shows overwhelming public support within England for addressing this constitutional anomaly.

In a major new report on English Identity and the politics of the English Question, to be published by IPPR later this month, a survey asks more than 1,500 voters in England whether they agree or disagree that:

“Now that Scotland has its own parliament, Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote in the House of Commons on laws that affect only England.”

More than half (53 per cent) of voters in England said they ‘strongly agree’, while a further 26 per cent said they ‘agree’. Just 12 per cent ‘disagree’. The report shows that the proportion who ‘strongly disagree’ has more than doubled since 2007.

The creation of a commission to investigate the West Lothian question recognizes the strength of public feeling in England on this issue however the report argues that relying on a commission of experts alone will prove insufficient for considering the future of English governance in a devolved union. The prospect of either Scottish independence or ‘devolution-max’ – either of which would have profound effects on the governance of England and the other nations of the United Kingdom, suggest the time has come for a much wider public debate about the future of the Union and the position of England within it.

Richard Wyn Jones, Professor of Politics at Cardiff University and co-author of the report said:

“While the Coalition is to be applauded for at least broaching this hugely important issue, neither the likely composition nor terms of reference of the new Commission suggest that this represents a serious attempt to finally answer the West Lothian Question.

"But if the intention is to kick the issue into the long grass, this is to reckon without an English electorate that appears increasingly restive and increasingly convinced that the anomalies created by the current devolution arrangements need to be addressed. As this evidence suggests, the English are now overwhelmingly persuaded that a system in which MPs from the devolved territories can vote on legislation that applies only to England is unfair.

"We underestimate the current mood of the English electorate at our peril. In the 1980s the perceived unfairness of a system which allowed left-leaning Scotland and Wales to be governed by a party without a mandate in those countries led to the generation of an unstoppable head of steam leading directly to the devolution reforms of the late 1990s. It is not hard to imagine how a different set of territorial anomalies could create a similar response in England. Indeed, it might already be happening.”

Guy Lodge, IPPR Associate Director, and co-author of the report, said:

“The English electorate strongly believes that the anomaly of the West Lothian question should be addressed. Reform in this area is notoriously difficult and so we welcome the establishment of the Commission to explore possible ways forward. However, as our forthcoming report will show, a narrow focus on the West Lothian question will not be sufficient to satisfy English public opinion. A strengthening of English identity, combined with growing interest in how England is governed, pose an important challenge for the centre-left in particular, which has so far failed to engage with these important developments in England. The time has come for a much wider public debate about what form a new constitutional settlement for England should take. Progressive politics needs to lead and not follow this debate.”

ENDS

Toque says

In the past I've been critical of IPPR but I like to give praise where it is due. With the Commission into the West Lothian Question due to be announced this week, this is a timely press release from IPPR, and it serves as a warning to the Government that if the Commission is intended as a tool to kick the resolution of the West Lothian Question into the long-grass, then they are playing a very dangerous game.

IPPR's conclusions are good. They are correct to point out that a committee of government appointed constitutionalists cannot answer the English Question, only the people of England can do that. And they are correct to question the terms of reference of the Commission. The only complete answer to the West Lothian Question is an English parliament, so if an English parliament is off the agenda the Commission is something of a lame duck from the beginning. Most of all IPPR should be applauded for suggesting that there should be a much wider public debate about the future of the Union and the position of England within it.

The polling on English attitudes to the voting privileges of Scottish MPs comes from IPPR's forthcoming paper entitled The Future of England to be published later this month. It builds upon previous polling conducted by British Social Attitudes.

English public attitudes to the West Lothian Question, 2000-2011 (%):
Question: Now that Scotland has its own parliament, Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote in the House of Commons on laws that affect only England, 2000-2011 (%):

2000 2001 2003 2007 2011
Strongly agree 18 19 22 25 53
Agree 45 38 38 36 26
Neither agree nor disagree 19 18 18 17 N/A
Disagree 8 12 10 9 8
Strongly disagree 1 2 1 1 4

Sources: 2000—2007, British Social Attitudes (English respondents only); 2011, Future of England Excludes ‘Don’t Know’ responses

IPPR find that the growing proportion of the population in England who prioritise their English over their British identity are even more supportive of reform in this area.

English public attitudes to the West Lothian Question by national identity, 2011(%):
Question: Now that Scotland has its own parliament, Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote in the House of Commons on laws that affect only England, 2000-2011 (%):

English not British More English than British Equally English and British More British than English British not English
Strongly agree 71 65 47 41 44
Agree 20 20 33 34 27
Neither agree nor disagree N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Disagree 4 7 7 14 13
Strongly disagree 0 1 1 3 6

Source: FoE 2011

The prospects for this Commission are not good, I almost pity the 'experts' who will be taking part. I expect that the Commission will recommend a mitigation of the West Lothian Question through a form of English Votes on English Laws (see Clarke vs Rifkind). Such an outcome would be a mitigation of, but not an answer to, the West Lothian Question. The Coalition has kicked reform of the Barnett Formula into the long-grass for the foreseeable future, but as the Barnett Formula provides the main justification for Scottish MPs voting on English legislation (even though, alarmingly, Mark Harper thinks otherwise) it is impossible to answer the West Lothian Question without implementing fiscal autonomy. The Rifkind/Clarke proposal affords Scottish MPs the opportunity to overturn an English bill that has implications for Scotland's funding under the Barnett Formula. But neither Rifkind or Clarke answer the West Lothian Question, their proposals merely beg the questions: "Why should Scottish MPs have any say on English legislation?" and "Why should non-English MPs be able to overturn the will of English MPs?".

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