Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
Home rule for Scotland, including fiscal autonomy, is both desirable and inescapable. When 45 per cent of Scots vote for complete separation, and 55 per cent against it, the only way to build any kind of consensus is through what has become known as “devo max”. And if Scotland is to enjoy full internal autonomy, then a change in the constitutional arrangements of the other three home nations also becomes both desirable and inescapable.
It’s true that, even under current arrangements, there is an anomaly. On some issues, Scottish MPs at Westminster find themselves able to vote on my constituents’ affairs but not their own. The hunting ban, for example, was imposed on England by the votes of Scottish Labour MPs who had no say on whether to criminalise country sports north of the Border. So were tuition fees and foundation hospitals. Until now, though, these incongruities have been accommodated in a suitably Burkeian spirit into our antique, ramshackle, lop-sided, yet glorious constitution.
Once the Edinburgh assembly secures full tax-raising powers (as it should: a proper link between taxation, representation and expenditure is the prerequisite to a free-market revival in the land of Adam Smith), the lop-sidedness will cease to be an anomaly and become an outrage. Scottish MPs at Westminster will have virtually no function except to vote on English, Welsh and Northern Irish matters. Voters on both sides of the Border tell pollsters that this would be absurd, and all the parties except Labour agree.
So what’s the solution? There are six possible answers, each with its pros and cons; but only two of the six strike me as viable.
An English veto
The minimalist response is the one announced yesterday by William Hague: to prevent Scottish MPs from imposing laws on the rest of the UK. This is fine as far as it goes, but it has a huge drawback. As Mark Wallace explained on ConservativeHome yesterday, it gives the rest of the UK only negative autonomy: the power to reject, but not the power to legislate. English MPs might block a tax rise, for example, but could not opt for a tax cut. There would be no English Executive: no one to steer an English budget through Parliament, or introduce a new education or transport policy. The essential asymmetry would remain.
An English Parliament
Well then, say some critics, let’s create a fully-fledged English Parliament with powers to match Holyrood’s. Let’s summon it at, say, the ancient capital of Winchester, and let’s call it a Folkmoot or a Witenagemot or some such. Although this option enjoys near-fanatical support from some online campaigners with colourful Anglo-Saxon monikers, it elicits scant enthusiasm in the country. After all, devolution to a unit that comprises 84 per cent of the UK’s population is no devolution at all. We’d be creating a new tier of salaried politicians, and all their concomitant bureaucracies, without bringing decisions any closer to the people they affect.
English days at Westminster
OK, say others, so why not just constitute a legislative body out of the Westminster MPs representing English seats? Why not let them meet as an England-only Parliament on, say, Wednesdays and Thursdays? Why not let them choose an English Prime Minister and Cabinet from their own number? That way, there’d be no extra MPs and only a handful of extra ministerial salaries.
True, but the level of constitutional anomaly would at this stage become unsustainable. Non-English MPs at Westminster would be turning up for no purpose beyond voting on defence, foreign policy and aspects of immigration. English MPs might find themselves in Opposition on Tuesdays and in Government on Thursdays. The Burkeian spirit of organic reform is not open-ended. There comes a point when things can no longer be bubblegummed together, and a new dispensation is needed.
One way of cleaning up all these inconsistencies would be to create regional assemblies in England. Labour and the Lib Dems were enthusiastic about this option in the 1990s, as was the EU, which saw it as a way of bringing England into line with other member states. But English people were anything but enthusiastic. The scheme was rejected by four-to-one in a referendum in the region where it had the most support: the North East. Not that anyone was especially surprised: the synthetic nature of the proposed regions could be inferred from their names: South East, North West and so on.
The same is not true, though, of English shires and cities, which engender genuine civic patriotism. The affinity and identity that is the prerequisite for a successful democracy can be found more strongly in English counties than in some entire nations. Hampshire is an older political unit than France. I don’t see any powers that might be devolved to Holyrood under devo max that could not be handled by English county and metropolitan councils. Voters in New Hampshire control their own taxation, welfare and criminal justice systems. Are their cousins in old Hampshire uniquely incapable of self-government?
Most radical of all is the notion of full federation. Exponents of this model often propose having four unicameral national parliaments and transforming the House of Lords into a UK-wide chamber. This option raises too many questions to discuss here, from the precise balance of powers to the representation of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man to relations with the Irish Republic. These questions may all find answers if they are addressed in an unhurried and sober manner. But it won’t happen immediately.
I have always favoured option five – not as an emergency response to Scottish devolution, but as a worthwhile reform in itself. England has the weakest local government in Europe. The only EU state whose councils raise a lower proportion of their expenditure is Malta – which is close to being a single extended conurbation. As our local authorities have become enfeebled, turnout has fallen and potential council candidates have been put off. Localism – including tax-raising powers for counties and cities – would restore honour and purpose to council elections.
There may, in time, also be a case for option six. But option five can be implemented immediately, before the West Lothian anomaly creates a constitutional crisis. Oddly, the party that seems most inclined in that direction is currently Labour – though this may simply reflect the fact that opposition parties are always keener on decentralisation.
Hampshire, incidentally, has a larger population than New Hampshire: 1.8 million people to the Granite State’s 1.3 million. Yes, its territory is smaller, but that’s surely an advantage: it means more diversity and variety, more competition with other tax jurisdictions leading to something we’ve never known before in England, namely downward pressure on tax rates.
Devo max for Scotland, in short, gives us an opportunity to restore the responsibilities that local councils once took for granted, from law-enforcement to the relief of poverty. Such opportunities don’t come twice.