Tuesday, 8 May 2007

The Case for an English Parliament

Anders Hanson has written a thoughtful and apposite call for an English Parliament. As is often the way with the most interesting discussions, I began writing a response and ended up rivalling him for length. I have therefore decided to take my views back home and post them directly.

Anders starts, as many do when debating this issue, with the West Lothian Question, and indeed received a little flack for suggesting that we must now address it because the grumbling is coming to a head. I think this is an unfair accusation. I have heard it said (notably at a Liberal Democrat federal conference consultation session, in March) that “the best answer to the West Lothian Question is not to ask it”. It that is so, then Anders is right; if the issue is not going to go away, it needs addressing, and the sooner we do so the better. Having said that, I do not think that that was his only or main motivation for raising the question.

If one accepts that the West Lothian Question needs addressing, the obvious answer is to devolve more powers within England, too. This raises the debate between an English Parliament and regional assemblies. As liberals, our party has supported regional assemblies because the decision making is closer to the citizen – an English parliament would not be noticeably less remote than a British one. Indeed, for my part I would prefer that more powers were devolved to county and borough councils (and beyond), though I recognise that some public services do not lend themselves to such small units (while pointing out that some English counties are bigger than many EU member-states).

However, I have always suspected that the enthusiasm for regional assemblies is in large part the result of a fear of the power that would accrue to an English Parliament that represents five sixths of the Union. If so, that is no reason to stop the English having their own parliament, apropos the Scots, Welsh and Irish. Otherwise we are discriminating against the English based only on the size of their population.

For some reason this puts me in mind of Apartheid – giving the black population of South Africa the vote was a problem for white South Africans largely because they were a majority – and also of the irony of the “Turkish War of Independence”, which saw the Turks winning their independence from an empire that they had themselves dominated (a bit like the UK winning independence from the British Empire).

The English are as much an ancient nation as the other members of the United Kingdom, and if we are determined to divide our country upon “national” lines, we should show the English the same courtesy that we show the other peoples of Britain.

In this respect, I completely disagree with the point often made (notably by Joe Otten in the comments to Anders’ post, though I recognise that Joe is following in a long tradition) that it is perfectly reasonable for a sovereign government to delegate its powers differently to different regional and local administrations. This works in exceptional circumstances (Åland leaps to mind, and Hong Kong up to a point) but cannot be a satisfactory solution for large regions within a unified country. Spain, often cited as an example of differential devolution, is far from ideal, having generated a number of (generally peaceful) struggles for greater local power as each Autonomous Community strives for the level of devolution enjoyed by Catalonia or the Basque Country.

In practice, stability is best achieved through a proper federal system, viz. that practiced in the United States. The division of powers would be clearly set out: so, for example, the UK would manage the economy, defence and foreign affairs; the “nations” would manage healthcare and energy; counties and boroughs would manage education and policing; districts would deal with waste collection; and each would be empowered to tax and spend by the voters discretely from one another. Up to a point, there would be no argument as to who could vote on which decision: is it a federal, a national or a local question? Where there was a battle, a Constitutional Court would rule.

I have in the past subscribed to the belief (I might now say, the conceit) that the UK was an old enough and stable enough country not to need a written constitution. Such documents are not painless or without cost, and there is a real danger that establishing one would merely enshrine our current fancies in legislation difficult for our successors to revoke. It has been said that Clement Atlee once contemplated implementing a Nazi-style Enabling Act that parliament would be unable to revoke.

Unfortunately, “the constitutional problems created by Labour's asymmetric version of devolution” have led me to conclude that we can no longer rely on Britain’s age, tradition or stability to guide us. A true constitutional settlement is called for, and if Britain is really to be divided upon national lines, the English have as much of a right to a national parliament as any other nation.


Toque said...

The English are as much an ancient nation as the other members of the United Kingdom, and if we are determined to divide our country upon “national” lines, we should show the English the same courtesy that we show the other peoples of Britain.

Thanks you for saying that. I think it's important to recognise that any constitutional settlement to deal with the West Lothian Question - and with the wider English Question - should not be handed down from on high by the UK Government.

The Claim of Right for Scotland - signed up to by the Scottish Lib Dems - acknowledged the 'sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs'.

New Labour will say that devolution is power retained, and that Westminster remains sovereign, but, actually, devolution97 was all about sovereignty and our idea of where and with whom sovereignty should lie.

It's my firmly held belief that England has the same sovereign right as Scotland. Attempts to break England up into regions without a referendum that consults the English nation as a whole are nothing short of contemptuous. England should not be sacrificed at the alter of unionism. If the union is to prosper it must be a union of nations at the behest of the people of those individual nations.

Good to see Lib Dem blogs taking up this cause. About time, what's been keeping you!

Chris Abbott said...

Thank you for this. I really believe that the issue of "regional assemblies" is irrelevant until England has a national parliament. Then the people of England can decide their chosen form of local government via their elected representatives.

The best way for the UK to survive is for a system of equal devolution to each UK nation. The way that the other mainstream parties have ignored or attempted to blur the issues is a disgrace and a grave injustice to England as an historic UK nation and to every man, woman and child resident in England today.

I hope that this is the start of something positive. Sooner or later the issues will have to be faced.

Efforts are being made to foster a positive, inclusive sense of Scottishness and Welshness in Scotland and Wales by those countries' respective governing bodies.

In England, the government thrives on undermining any efforts at encouraging an inclusive, modern sense of the English nationality, open to all, and keeps chanting "British", pretending that devolution elsewhere in the UK hasn't happened, and hoping that the electorate in England will not notice.

This means, in practice, that people in England can now die for want of medication available on the NHS in Scotland, and that millionaires don't pay prescription fees in Wales but those on low incomes in England DO. Health apartheid no less.

Issues need addressing if the UK is to survive, and the establishment of a parliament for England is now an urgent need.