An English Parliament is No Solution

The result of a No vote in the Scottish Referendum is not the status quo, but a rush to grant a mass of new powers to the devolved Scottish Parliament. This outcome, which Prime Minister David Cameron prevented being on the ballot in the first place, is often called ‘Devo-Max’. The most important of its’ powers are new abilities to set income tax rates in Scotland, and thus it gives much greater budgetary control. This outcome may satisfy many Scots who object strongly the the Coalition government’s austerity and budget cuts. This, however, is not the only result; a constitutional crisis has emerged at the heart of the British State.

The crisis centres on what has become known as the West Lothian Question which, put simply, is the problem that Scottish MPs can vote on laws that affect English people but English MPs can’t vote on laws that affect Scottish people. When a power is devolved to the Scottish Parliament (such as running the NHS) only Scottish MSPs can vote on it. But in England control of the NHS is still in the hands of the Westminster Parliament, including its 60 Scottish MPs. This means Scottish MPs influence a health service their constituents do not use. The problem is clear, and the anti-democratic nature of the West Lothian Question is deeply concerning.

The question is now, how do we solve this crisis? One unthinkable option – so far as we are democrats – is to simply break the agreement. No devo-max for Scotland and the beginning of a process to role back devolution altogether. This is clearly unacceptable, so another approach is necessary. The most popular is an English Parliament. Precisely how it would function is up for debate, but all approaches are unacceptable.

The first approach, which is supported by many Conservative MPs and others, is ‘English Votes on English Matters’. A relatively small change, it would mean MPs representing English constituencies at Westminister would vote on matters that have been devolved on Scotland, and MPs from Scotland would not get to. So to go back to the example above, only English MPs would vote on how to run the NHS in England. One plausible proposal for the practicalities of this is that for 2 days a week the Westminster Parliament would be devoted solely to English issues.

The ‘English Votes on English Matters’ plan, whilst sounding simple, only creates a bigger constitutional crisis than the one it purports to solve. Due to the number of Labour Party controlled seats in Scotland there is a real possibility that Labour could win an overall majority at a general election, yet when it came to English devolved powers, be running a minority government. This situation would be incredibly unstable, and such instabilities are unlikely to serve the interests of the English people. It is also an essentially unsolvable problem, due to our parliamentary, as opposed to presidential, government system. Our executive i.e. government is a part of our legislature i.e. parliament. In systems in which they are separate, such as in the US, having a different party in executive power than which controls the legislature is a comfortable, if unproductive situation. In our system it would be deeply unstable, as the ability of the executive to function at all depends on its control of the legislature. Unless we allow a separate executive branch of government which deals only with English matters (creating an awkward system with two Prime Ministers) there is no solution to this within our parliamentary system. Since a switch to a presidential system would involve uprooting the entire British Constitution, we have to think of something else.

The other option, which has also wide support, is to follow the Scottish and Welsh model, and create a new body. This English Parliament would be filled with Members of the English Parliament MEP’s (our current MEP’s may have to shove over and become MEuPs). This parliament would then have all the powers the Scottish Parliament has – thus solving the crisis in our democracy.

Well, not quite.

There are a series of problems with this proposal.  Suppose that the English Parliament has control over the NHS, Welfare, Education and a significant proportion of income tax, that would mean the English First Minister would be in charge of many of the most significant parts of the lives of 54 million of the 64 million people who live in the UK. With that in mind the English First Minister would seem to rival the Prime Minister in importance – creating the sort of awkward dual leadership we saw in the previous paragraph.

Of course, the problems don’t stop there. Given that things such as health, education and welfare are some of the issues that are often decisive in determining which way we vote, it is possible that for a candidate for Prime Minister, having the support of the English First Minister – through party allegiance or otherwise – would be essential to getting elected. This would mean England would continue to marginalise Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish interests in Westminster, forcing us to revert to the situation that was so problematic to start with.

The problems for an English parliament don’t end there however. An English Parliament would do nothing to solve the political disillusionment of many English, which is a another strong motivator for changing the current constitutional set-up. Particularly in the North, many English feel as ignored by Westminster as the Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish. An English Parliament, even if not based in London or the South East will continued to be swayed by these wealthier regions. An English Parliament would solve the problems of very few English people at all.

An English Parliament, of any form, is no solution – but what is? Whatever it is it isn’t simple. Devolution is itself controversial. Many on the left fear that parochialism will simply allow the rich regions to stay rich, and interrupt an appropriate redistribution of wealth between regions. Many on the right dislike the weakening of the central government which is tasked with binding the country together. But, as I said earlier, Scottish devolution is now demanded by a democratic vote – failure to deliver now would be a violation of the principles that are supposed to make this country great. We must, therefore, find a way forward.

The only viable approach is regional assemblies. This might be alarming, they have been decisively rejected by voters before, but I believe there are approaches that might see us through. We should not resurrect previous proposals, which involved creating many separate bodies called Regional Assemblies in the style of the Scottish Parliament. These were unpopular, and rightly so. The mass proliferation of politicians, struggling to win over voters, and competing for time with Westminster is an ugly outcome. A better way to proceed is to make use of the MPs that are already in parliament. This may sound like English Votes on English Matters, but it isn’t. Here the difference is that the MPs from each region form the assemblies. But they do not have their own executive, rather when it comes to voting on devolved English matters, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs do not vote, and English MPs vote within their regions assemblies. If a majority of English Regional Assemblies pass the legislation, then the legislation passes from the whole of England. This Regional Assemblies of MPs would function to give more weight to regions that are often simply out voted. It would require Westminster and Number 10 to focus more on long-ignored English regions and solves the West Lothian question without the constitutional nightmare produced by an English Parliament or straightforward English Votes on English Matters. This approach of Westminster MPs in Regional Assemblies is the way forward for England after the Scottish Referendum. The outcome of an English Parliament would be disastrous for ignored regions of England, and for the integrity of the British State.