Maltby Harriet

Harriet Maltby is a Government and Economics Researcher at the Legatum Institute and a former Senior Parliamentary Assistant.

Andrew Rosindell MP called here, last week, for William Hague to come forward with ‘bold’ proposals for an English Parliament. This would indeed be bold for a Unionist party, as institutionalising English nationalism requires a tacit abandonment of the principle of Unionism.

The Kilbrandon Commission examined an English Parliament in 1973 and concluded that “a federation consisting of four units – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – would be so unbalanced as to be unworkable. It would be dominated by the overwhelming political importance and wealth of England… it is not a realistic proposition.”

Indeed, an English Parliament would be separatist precisely because of its unworkability. Successful federalism has a degree of equity in province size. We see only failed examples of federalism were one province is as dominant as England would be; just look to the former USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Canada is closest, with Ontario representing 35 per cent of the population. England would have more than 80 per cent. As Professor Bogdanor argues in a recent paper – The Future of the Union – for the Legatum Institute, the dominance of the English Parliament would be so great as to be destabilising, and would have “little chance of survival”. The English are not best served by instability and disintegration.

Particularly divisive would be the balance of power between the English and Federal executives, an issue yet to be addressed by arguments for an English Parliament. The Prime Minister would conduct foreign, defence, and fiscal policy on behalf of the English First Minister who, despite leading the democratic majority of 80 per cent of the population, would have no such say. This would not matter as long as the two were politically aligned. Entrench them on opposite sides of the argument, however, and we are no further forward. The Scottish vote could still enable a Prime Minister to take us to war or sink our economy against the wishes of an opposing English First Minister and his English majority. The divide would just be institutionalised. It is hard to see how this protects the English.

The alternative is some form of English Votes for English Laws as this avoids the problem of an English executive. But this too, argues Bogdanor, is a separatist proposal. Why? It would further separate two forms of government – the English and the Scottish. The SNP has a settled policy on not voting on “English” laws, and as a separatist party, this makes perfect sense. By further separating the affairs of Scotland from the rest, England accepts and reinforces this separatism, which makes the Union weaker, not stronger.

There are a number of other issues with EVEL. First is the constitutional gridlock that would inevitably result in the event of Labour holding a UK majority but not an English one. In this respect, as Bogdanor eloquently argues, EVEL would deliberately import the sort of constitutional gridlock that dominates the US when Congress and Presidency are of opposing parties. In a highly partisan system of government such as Westminster, it is hard to see why this would be in any way desirable, nor how it would better serve the English.

Second is the definition of an “English only” law. Scotland’s block grant is based on the level of funding in England, so even on devolved matters votes in England affect the level of Scotland’s block grant. The separation of English laws is not as obvious as we would like to pretend it is. EVEL does not solve the asymmetry of the West Lothian Question, it simply moves it elsewhere.

Asymmetry, argues Bogdanor, is the price England pays for the Union. It is easy to say that it is a price not worth paying, and that would be perfectly coherent as part of an argument for an English Parliament. However, from a Unionist party, it is nonsensical.

Two crucial mistakes lie here. First is the failure to differentiate between the argument of representation and the argument of funding. The West Lothian Question would be solved by EVEL, but only at the expense of similar constitutional anomalies elsewhere. It could be equally addressed by reducing the Scottish representation at Westminster, on the basis that much is devolved and so they do not need as much representation as the English. This was done with Irish MPs. The historic overfunding of Scotland, through Barnett, to the tune of around £1600-a-head per year is the predominant driver of English disquiet. Yet this is not a constitutional problem but a political one and one that has been made much harder to tackle in the wake of the Referendum campaign. Changing the constitution will not make the decision to take money from the Scots, nor to justify continued overfunding to the English, any more palatable for politicians.

The second mistake is to equate “the constitution” solely with one chamber of the legislature. There are a number of alternatives ways we could seek to rebalance our constitutional settlement. Greater localism within England is one, electoral reform to reduce the imbalance in Scottish representation or reform of the Upper House to introduce a territorial basis of representation (and Rosindell is right, that should include Overseas Territories) are others.

Our constitutional settlement is delicate. With England such a dominant part, asymmetry is inevitable. It is the price of the United Kingdom. We can fixate on institutionalising English nationalism by all means, but we do so at the cost of being Unionists.

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