Cameron’s “solution” to the constitutional imbalance produced by devolution


The morning after the NO in the Scottish independence referendum vote David  Cameron  said this:

The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question –requires a decisive answer.

So, just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland.”

Whether Cameron could deliver much of this in the seven months before the General Election is highly dubious, both on the grounds of time and the difficulty of getting agreement with the other major Westminster parties . Labour leader Ed Miliband has already refused to back the idea of linking English constitutional reform to the granting of extra powers to Scotland. This is for a crude political reason: without Labour MPs from outside of England the Labour Party would have no chance of forming a government in England for the foreseeable future.  LibDem leader Nick Clegg has also refused to back Cameron’s proposal, but will support the formation of an English Grand Committee to scrutinise and amend English-only legislation. However, this would still leave the Parliament with the final say, which would include votes for MPs sitting for seats outside of England.

But even if Cameron could do it in the time and the other major Westminster Parties agreed to his proposal, it is difficult to see how Cameron could achieve what he wants – an equality of control over national affairs in the four Home Countries – because he is determined not to have an English Parliament. Moreover, English votes for English laws suggests he wants to have only MPs for English seats voting on issues which affect only England. But it is not clear at present whether Cameron would exclude Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. If they were not excluded, the problem of non-English MPs voting on English issues would remain. The matter is complicated because Welsh and Northern Irish devolved powers are less than those already in Scotland and will be yet more inferior to a Scotland with the proposed new powers. The only solution to this is to give all four Home Nations equal devolved powers. This might be resisted by the Welsh and Northern Irish because they are not fully using the powers they have, most probably because of the responsibilities they impose.

But excluding non-English seat MPs from voting on English issues would not entirely solve the problem. There would still be the question of who makes the policy on which the MPs vote.  It is easy to see how a situation could arise where a Labour government or a coalition government with MPs drawn from non-English seats could have an overall majority in the Commons but be in the minority amongst English MPs. If that were the case it would not be for such a government to make laws for England because it would be non-English MPs making English policy. English laws would have to be formulated and developed by an executive drawn only from English-seat MPs. Unless there were a government with an English-seat majority that would mean two executives in the Commons, one dealing with English affairs and one with all other affairs. It would be unworkable. If there were both an English Parliament and a Federal government the problem would not exist because the two executives would be clearly delineated and their areas of responsibility obvious.

There is also a serious procedural problem with English votes for English laws, namely, who would decide what an English only issue is? It has been suggested the Speaker would make the decision. That would place a dangerously large amount of political power and influence in the hands of one man. (Imagine the present speaker John Bercow making such a decision when faced with a Tory government). But whatever the arrangements for making such a decision, there would be immense opportunity for dissension and many seemingly English-only issues could end up classified as not qualifying as English-only. Indeed, while the Barnet Formula remains any English legislation with spending implications could be argued  to not be English-only because what England gets to spend is linked to what Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland receive: England gets more for the NHS, the other home nations get a proportionate boost to their spending and so on. The difficulty could be removed by abolishing the Barnett Formula, but that would result in a great uproar amongst the Celtic Fringe. If the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies were not given the same powers as the Scottish parliament, that would also cause great confusion and argument.

But the matter goes beyond mere numbers. Even if a Westminster government is formed with a majority of English MPs, the fact that MPs from outside of England would still be able to both vote on and help frame English-only legislation. This would colour that legislation because personal relationships between politicians of the governing party would compromise the desire of the government to act in England’s interests. The smaller the government majority amongst English MPs  the more influence non-English seat MPs would be able to exert because their voice would be louder and the Government would  always be afraid of a general rebellion by the non-English seat MPs if non-English  interests were   pandered to.  A government with a tiny majority of English seats could well be defeated in such circumstances.

If the Westminster government with a majority English-seat MPs was formed by a party with strong representation in one or more of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies,  the temptation not to act solely in English interests would be strong because of the fear that what was done at Westminster could damage their standing in the other Home Countries.

The only practical and honest solution to the constitutional mess is an English Parliament. It would allow an exact equality of powers and national focus to be granted to each of the Home Nations. The Parliament could be created very simply at little or no additional cost: only MPs for English seats would be elected to the House of Commons which would become what it was originally, an English institution.

An English Parliament would remove not only the practical difficulties of deciding who should make policy to put before  the Commons and  what legislation was to be dealt with only by MPs with English seats, it would also  force England’s representatives to concentrate on England’s interests first, second and last.

The UK federal Parliament could be created simply by forming it of the MPs of the four Home Country national Parliaments. With federal matters restricted to a handful of important issues – defence, macro fiscal policy, foreign affairs, homeland security and suchlike – the federal parliament would not have that much to do. This would allow it to meet at Westminster if a physical gathering is required or it could be conducted through linking the four national parliaments via the Web. The federal government would be formed as the UK government is now, on a majority drawn from the four Home Country parliaments.

Coming next The Scottish referendum and the accidental emergence of the English voice part 2: How to prevent the sabotage of the English political voice.

Photo by Pickersgill Reef