Earlier this month, the ConservativeHome manifesto made the case for full devolution to all four home nations – including England. There should, we said, be a devolved English government led by an English first minister (‘English votes for English laws’ is not enough).
Despite making a vow of further devolution to Scottish voters during the referendum campaign, Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband declined to make a corresponding commitment to the people of England – and any promises made now will need to be forensically examined.
Clearly, the interests ranged against genuine English home rule are powerful ones, which is why those of us in favour of the idea need to understand the case against it. Consider, for instance, the thoughtful arguments of the Labour blogger Hopi Sen (which were published a few days before the crucial vote):
“I half suspect that resistance to devo-max among Westminster parties has more to do with England than with Scotland. The main benefit of leaving the devolution settlement in Scotland more or less as it was, is that it did not make it necessary to poke the inconsistencies and contradictions of that settlement with a sharp stick.”
With limited devolution, the “inconsistencies and contradictions” of the old settlement were just about tolerable from an English point of view. However, that situation no longer applies.
Sen accepts that a new settlement is required, just not one involving English devolution:
“The basic issue is that England entirely dominates the Union. It’s as if the United States was only New York State, West Virginia and Alaska. In such a situation it almost becomes nonsensical to allow New York to have its own policy setting bodies, as almost all the time it would get the President and Congress it voted for, and on devolved issues, the size and economic power of the largest state means any decision it made would have huge repercussions for the other states.
“Imagine if an English parliament decide to cut income tax and corporation tax below that paid in Scotland, while temporarily increasing public spending above levels in Scotland. It would decimate the Scottish economy, without Scotland having any kind of say in the matter. The same is not true in reverse.”
Sen has a point here in regard to headline tax rates. On other issues, though, he’s surely pushing his argument too far:
“What if English public services became substantially worse than Scottish ones and we started seeing major population transfer?”
Even if a performance gap did open up, the English would be more likely to vote at the ballot box for successful Scottish-style policies then vote with their feet and move to Scotland.
As an alternative to English devolution, Sen argues for a system of what he calls “shared national consent”:
“How about a UK Commons, as now, which forms the national government, accompanied by a largely elected English House of Lords, with the consent of both bodies needed for any English only policies proposed by the former?”
This, to me, sounds like a formula for endless deadlock at a time when the need is for bold reform and experimentation. In this respect, we would be best served not only by devolution to England, but also devolution within England – about which Sen is doubtful:
“…neither Labour or Conservatives have been able to convince local communities that they are enthusiastic about city mayors, police commissioners, school boards or so on.”
This is only half-true. London has been convinced and the City Deals programme has been a huge success – demonstrating that when localisation is done in a coherent and collaborative manner it works.
If England’s cities and counties have the freedom to pursue their own reforms and innovations, then the potential impact of a monolithic England on the rest of the UK is much less of a problem. Of course, that might mean that some English areas do better than others as a result of pursuing smarter policies. But perhaps we should consider that more of an opportunity than a threat.