John Glen is MP for Salisbury and South Wiltshire.
Just over a month on from the historic referendum vote, it is a good time to take stock and look at what the next steps for reform and devolution should be.
It is easy to identify some missteps. One is evident in the early calls for a fully federal United Kingdom. The creation of an English Assembly would inevitably bring the prospect of Westminster becoming a hollowed-out federal senate. This would represent a Pyrrhic victory, dividing up the union that the Scottish people voted to preserve. Another is the call for regional assemblies. We mustn’t forget the decisive way in which regional assemblies were rejected by local people under Labour. Often, the concern is that the interests and needs of rural communities are overlooked by an authority in a metropolitan area – and regional assemblies do little to address this. The other major weakness of these proposals is that our constituents don’t want to see the cost of politics increase, or more of us! It will do no good to introduce a federal senate or another layer of local government.
However, the devolution debate has rightly raised questions about localism and the need for local areas to have greater control over spending. £2 billion will be devolved to Local Enterprise Partnerships from next year, but there is scope to extend the role and funding of LEPs. The Government has made impressive progress on City Deals and it will be vital to see these extended too. But there is also room for a wider debate about how money allocated right across the UK and why differences exist. Some, such as Northern Ireland, will be due to historical factors. But a case will need to be made to explain any disparity. Looking into the next Parliament, we need a Fair Funding Commission which looks at spending across all government departments over all regions and at all aspects of distribution: economic geography, sparsity, demographics, history. In seeking a fair solution to spending disparities, we should address these reasonable grievances, avoiding giving the British people what they don’t want – a higher cost of politics or a local talking shop – but rather giving meaningful authority and spending power to existing institutions.
Turning to English devolution and the question of English Votes for English Laws, the Government has been accused of rushing proposals and failing to deliberate properly. It is important to remember that the range of proposals for English devolution have not been developed in a vacuum or in the last few weeks. All the proposals being discussed have drawn on a rich seam of work by, among others, the Procedure Committee, Ken Clarke’s Democracy Taskforce, and the McKay Commission.
Even though the details can be technical, the underlying principle of English Votes for English Laws is extremely simple – that English MPs should have sole final discretion over English legislation. The McKay Commission was conducted on the very reasonable principle that “decisions at the United Kingdom level having a separate and distinct effect for a component part of the United Kingdom should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of the elected representatives for that part of the United Kingdom”.
Of course, a number of proposals can fit with this principle. The centre of gravity in the debate is rightly around the McKay proposals, which provide decisive discretion for English MPs, as well as opportunities to discuss and shape English-only legislation in committee. Over the coming weeks, more detailed proposals can be discussed, looking at devolved taxation, an English Grand Committee, reforms to the House of Commons Standing Orders, and so on.
English devolution is in the historic spirit of the union. Part of the strength of the United Kingdom is that its nations can learn from each other, whilst being tied together in our history and in our shared future. The impetus for devolution is, and should be, strengthening and preserving the union. Failing to address the West Lothian question and the wider questions of regional spending could compromise the future of the union as English grievances remain unaddressed. This has always been the nature of an asymmetric devolution settlement: that as grievances and differences become clear, they can be addressed and accommodated in discrete and gradual reforms. English devolution is no different.
Given that the impetus of English devolution comes from protecting the Union, it is extremely disappointing to see the reaction of many political parties. The “United Kingdom Independence Party” appear to be misnamed, having adopted a careless English nationalism. The Labour Party’s leaders seem not to be serious about protecting the union, labelling the government’s proposals as a “Westminster fix” or a “destabilising influence” yet steadfastly refusing to contribute any ideas to address the legitimate grievances of English voters.
Yet these underlying issues have been in Conservative party manifestos for the last 15 years. Over the coming weeks I hope we will see thoughtful individual Labour MPs engaging constructively on these issues, even if their leadership have vetoed involvement in talks. The Liberal Democrats, championing fairness, should to be in favour of rebalancing the union and dealing with spending disparities to ensure its survival.
Lastly, none of these proposals breaks the party leaders’ commitments to Scotland. The questions of Scottish and English devolution must proceed together, as we deliberate about the future of our United Kingdom. English Votes for English Laws should be implemented along the lines of the McKay commission, holding tightly to the principle of sole final discretion for English MPs. This must be accompanied by a new Fair Funding Commission in the Conservatives General Election manifesto; this will address the reasonable protests of unfair spending disparities across the UK. The next month of debate will be as significant as the last.