Response to the Constitution Unit’s consultation on design options for an English Parliament
Following is my response the the Constitution Unit’s consultation on an English parliament. If you disagree with anything I’ve written and have a better suggestion then do feel free to comment or, more constructively, submit your own response here. You have four days left to do so.
1. What is your general view on the desirability of an English Parliament?
If there was a referendum on an English parliament that paraphrased the 1997 referendum question in Scotland (ie ‘I agree there should be an English Parliament’ or ‘I do not agree there should be an English Parliament’), then I am certain that England would vote for its own parliament by a clear and decisive margin. For political reasons pollsters muddy the constitutional waters by throwing in lots of alternative options such as regional assemblies or EVEL but there is clear demand over many years for an English dimension to governance over the Status Quo. Regional or local devolution is often put forward as an alternative to an English parliament as if devolution and national government are somehow mutually incompatible. It is not an either/or question. I want an English parliament and English devolution.
In my personal opinion an English parliament is highly desirable. It would be good for England’s soul and help normalise English politics. At present England is a nation unimagined. We have British politicians who pronounce on English domestic issues but couch everything in the language of Britishness: ‘British education’, ‘British health service’, ‘Let’s get Britain building’, etc. Rarely, if ever, is the word ‘England’ used. More nebulous terms like ‘our country’ or ‘this country’ are used if the politician is conscious of the territorial limitations of their brief, anything will do other than a reference to that country of which they dare not speak. To speak for England would be to undermine [the Britishness of] Parliament, to ‘fan the flames of English nationalism’, to undermine the Union or to highlight the inconvenient fact that the UK is actually a multinational polity and not a unitary state. Our politicians go to great lengths to articulate a political vision for Britain (and Scottish or Welsh politicians envisage a better Scotland or Wales) while denying England the same.
England is no less an historic nation than Scotland or Wales and deserves the same constitutional and political recognition as the other nations of the UK. The people of England deserve to have institutions that reflect their national identity and speak for, of and to England. British institutions cannot do that (Gordon Brown infamously vetoed John Denham’s plan for state funding of St George’s Day on the basis that it would enrage the Scots). Asymmetric devolution (whereby all nations except England have a parliament) is driving separatism because it provides no legitimate political outlet for English national identity and, at the same time, deprives the Scots and Welsh of equal ownership of British institutions (for example the UK Parliament is also the de facto English parliament and the UK Government is the de facto English government).
Increasingly though there is the idea of England as a discrete political community: an English demos. This should be recognised and England should be permitted to develop its own policies and direction, an English polity, instead of having decisions made in the context of Britain, couched in the language of Britishness by British MPs (Nb The oft-used phrase ‘English MP’ is misleading, in reality there are MPs who are elected in England but because the House of Commons splits down party lines, not national lines, they can only be regarded as British MPs – even if EVEL threatens to undermine that).
Speaking of EVEL, an English parliament would allow the UK Parliament and government to offer equal opportunity to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. At the moment it is very difficult to envisage a Scottish MP becoming a minister with an English (or mostly English) portfolio, which somewhat limits their ministerial career opportunities. Some might even object to a Scottish prime minister or chancellor being able to control and influence the policy agenda for England when they can’t even vote on it. I know I would. I would not, however, have the slightest problem with a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish prime minister of the UK if England had its own parliament.
An English parliament would provide more time for English domestic legislation, instead of trying to fit the governance of England in around the British parliamentary schedule.
The decision to establish an English parliament also gives us the opportunity to address other constitutional problems that have been put off for too long, most importantly The Lords and the voting system. We should look at the UK constitution in the round instead of piecemeal, asymmetric tinkering at the periphery, which has proved destabilising and unfair.
Most importantly I think an English parliament (and government) would be good for the soul of England. England should be a source of political identity and citizenship. Without an English parliament we risk the ethnicisation of English identity. We need a modern English democracy in which we’re all English through the ballot box in elections to the English parliament (which must be more representative of England’s diverse population). We cannot continue with the situation we’re in now whereby immigrants to England are told they’re British (Black-British, British-Asian, etc.) but the native population increasingly consider themselves just English-only. Why can’t we build a strong civic identity for England based on democracy and liberalism? Why can’t we normalise English national identity? Well, at the moment we can’t because successive British governments are obsessive about Britishness and can’t even bring themselves to say ‘England’, even when they’re discussing devolved policy areas – we still get Education secretaries promoting ‘British citizenship classes’ and ‘British history lessons’ as if they are in charge of British – not English – schools.
2. Were an English Parliament to be established should this be as part of a settlement to bind the UK together in a more stable way, or to facilitate English independence?
I see little benefit in breaking the Union up if it can be successfully modernised, so ideally an English parliament should be part of a settlement to bind the UK together, and I think it would have that effect. If nothing is done then I can foresee a time when an English parliament is proposed as a hostile act. That said, I don’t want to set up an English parliament on the basis of precluding some future outcome. I want an English parliament to be set up because it is what the people of England want, in the expectation that it will provide better and more representative government. It would be helpful if an English parliament were set up with an eye to setting the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures free from the UK Government’s policies and spending in England. A semi-autonomous England with its own domestic policy would be liberating for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too. No longer would they be satellites of of Anglo-Britain, they would be nations on equal terms with England, under the same umbrella of Britishness.
The secessionist threat, as I see it, comes not from England but Scotland. Eminent chin-scratchers have long opined that an English parliament would hasten Scotland’s exit and should therefore be resisted irrespective of public demand or democratic fairness. There is no evidence to support the claim that an English parliament would hasten the demise of the Union, and even if there was that is no reason to deny England that choice. As it is the opponents of an English parliament have had their way and denied England a choice, thereby creating nationalist grievance in England, while the Scots rail against the Anglo-British state/’English imperialism’ that is a consequence of not having an English parliament.
3. Were an English Parliament to be established what powers do you believe it should have?
The parliaments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should have identical powers. At the very least everything that Scotland now has but with substantial tax raising powers.
4. Were an English Parliament to be established do you believe it should be a separately elected institution from the UK parliament, or should it perhaps consist of English Westminster MPs holding a dual mandate? If you support Westminster MPs holding a dual mandate then how might this work in practice?
Dual mandate MPs are a dreadful idea, we don’t want double-jobbing MPs wearing a British hat on Tuesdays and an English hat on Wednesdays. For one thing MPs might be in opposition in the English parliament and in government in the British parliament (increasingly likely with the coming breakdown of the two-party Westminster duopoly). The English parliament and government should be separate institutions from the UK parliament and government. We really must get away from the very anglo-centric idea of the UK. This conception that Britain is England with some semi-autonomous Celtic appendages is extremely damaging to the sense of British identity and the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identities. It is one of the drivers of separatism.
5. Were an English Parliament to be established do you believe it should be unicameral (one chamber) or bicameral (two chambers)? How many members should the chamber(s) have?
Unicameral. There can be some scrutiny through the committee system. Additionally the federal [UK] parliament would scrutinise the legislation of the national parliaments (to mitigate problems of policy divergence between the four nations).
6. If you support an English Parliament separately elected from the UK House of Commons, what electoral system and boundaries do you believe should be used? Possible electoral systems include the first-past-the-post system used for elections to the UK parliament, the semi-proportional additional member system used for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and the proportional single transferable vote system used for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Single Transferable Vote. I have no problem with the number of constituencies that we have now.
7. If you support an English Parliament separately elected from the UK House of Commons where do you think it should meet – in Westminster, elsewhere in London or in a different city?
My gut instinct is that London is England’s capital and Westminster has been the seat of English power for 800 years, so if any parliament is to be relocated it should be the UK parliament. Liverpool would be my suggestion for the location of UK parliament. It is equidistant between the national capitals, it has an airport, a pleasant waterfront location and a local economy that could really do with that fillip.
My head tells me that it’s probably unrealistic to expect the UK Government to move and that the rising hostility towards the London-centric nature of England would be addressed spectacularly by locating the English parliament outside London. Geographical separation of the UK and English centres of power would also be beneficial. With that in mind I am reluctantly open to the English parliament, government and civil service being located outside the capital, preferably in the Midlands or North. Somewhere historic; somewhere redolent of England. If a suitable pre-existing building cannot be found in the Midlands or the North then I would go for a new site somewhere like Kenilworth, which has a large stretch of open land (vacated during the Black Death) over-looked by the ruins of Kenilworth Castle (home, appropriately, to Simon de Montfort). This would be convenient for Birmingham Airport, HS2, M40 and the delights of Shakespeare Country, which includes ‘Parliament Piece’, the alleged site of Henry III’s Parliament.
8. Were an English Parliament to be established do you believe there should also be an English government (e.g. a First Minister and cabinet separate from the UK government)? If so, do you have any views on how the English government should work, and what relationship it should have to the UK government?
Of course, what would be the point of establishing an English parliament but having no English government or first minister? The maxim ‘power devolved is power retained’ would need to be chucked in the bin marked ‘paternalistic, patronising nonsense’. We would need a written constitution that set out the limits of power of the national and federal governments and their relationships.
9. Were an English Parliament to be established how do you believe it should be financed? Possible options include through taxes raised by the English Parliament, through a block grant from the UK government or through a mix of these.
The English parliament and government (and those of the other nations of the UK) should be accountable for raising and spending the majority of their own taxes. Redistribution between the four nations to ensure some equality of services, investment and welfare should be done at a federal level.
10. Were an English Parliament to be established what relationship do you think it should have with sub-national bodies, e.g. city-regions or perhaps regional assemblies?
An English parliament should be established on the basis that devolves power to the most appropriate level, it should be responsible for legislation and national policy but I would like to see greater devolution under its auspices. One of the objections to regionalism was that it was partitioning England into unnatural administrative units, with the possibility of different legislatures and laws – a real ‘postcode lottery’ – within England. I think the objection to regionalism would be somewhat lessened if it were an English Parliament responsible for devolution within England, whilst maintaining nationwide legislation and standards. The regions could be self-selecting (for example local authorities banding together to reduce costs of service or increase their purchasing power). An English parliament shouldn’t be seen as an end in itself, but rather as a means to better, more representative governance. The UK government has traditionally used a top-down form of English devolution and more or less imposed regional assemblies, or used coercion in the case of city-regions and mayors. An English parliament should enable devolution rather than impose a uniform plan. Cornwall might want an assembly but that’s not to say that Surrey does. Regional grand committees, sitting in the regions, outside the English parliament, could also help give provincial England and local government a voice.
11. Were an English Parliament to be established what implications do you believe it should have for the UK parliament? E.g. Should it continue to have two chambers or should it be reduced to one chamber? Should the composition of the current House of Commons and House of Lords be changed in any way? Should the UK parliament continue to meet, as now, at Westminster?
There are good arguments for having a secondary chamber but not one based on political patronage, stuffed full of placemen, like we have now. I would retain a bicameral system for the UK parliament but both would be much reduced in number. It is not fashionable to say so but I think an appointed revising chamber in combination with an elected primary legislating chamber has benefits (expertise, real-world experience, longevity of service, less partisan) over two elected chambers both full of career- and party- politicians. I envisage a much smaller lower chamber elected on a first-past-the-post basis with a much smaller upper chamber of appointed ‘Lords’ representing equally-sized geographical areas (giving sparsely populated areas equal weight with urban areas – this also acts as a counterweight to England’s large population vis a vis rUK).
12. Do you have any further comments that you have not covered in response to previous questions? If so, please enter them here:
Thank you for conducting this survey.