Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The England Question

Paul Murphy MP (Lab, Torfaen) writes on Wales Home about the "English problem". That being, they lack some form of devolution settlement. Vast swathes of "UK" policy are now exclusively English, especially since the last strings tying Wales to the apron, with regard devolved matters, were cut in March.

"English votes for English matters" doesn't satisfy Paul. I think he is right in that respect. It's the quickest and cheapest way to deal with it, but there are all sorts of scenarios that would make it a complete dogs dinner.

For example, Labour could be in government at UK level relying wholly on Labour MPs from Scotland and Wales, but England could be overwhelmingly Conservative. Who would have the right to deal with bread and butter English-only matters like health and education? Who would run UK departments in this scenario? Would there be two executives in the Commons, a Prime Minister of the UK from Labour and a First Minister for England from the Conservatives swapping seats depending on what day it is?

There is a proposal for so-called "double majority" voting, where laws have to be passed by both the Commons at large and a majority of English MP's. This might go some way to solving the problem, but I doubt it would be satisfactory.

Then there's "EnglandandWales". Things like criminal justice, water and energy for example. Would there again be another Prime Minister for England and Wales matters? Based on how many seats the respective parties have on an Anglo-Welsh basis? Or would it be treated as an England-only matter, without the devolution of criminal justice etc. to Wales? I doubt any Conservative "First Minister" in England would want to give up one of the policy areas they are most associated with. The solution here is simply to devolve such matters to Wales. But would that require another referendum?

A devolved English Parliament? "Break-up of the Union".....you can here the cries now.

The problem is that England IS the Union. England is an elephant, Scotland is a Scottish terrier, Wales is a duck and Northern Ireland is a mouse caught in the teeth of a very ill-looking Celtic Tiger. It's a lop-sided Union and one of the reasons I believe it's becoming unworkable in its current unitary form.

Would an all-England Parliament be satisfied with the kinds of powers the devolved administrations currently have? It wouldn't have any sort of international clout. It wouldn't have any major tax-varying powers and it would spend most of it's time micromanaging a budget given to them by the UK Government. A budget that could actually dwarf the UK Government's once devolved and reserved matters are separated. That's another problem.

Where would it be based? How many elected members would it have (it would need to be several hundred surely)? What voting system would it use? All matters for the English people to decide of course, but not without some pain along the way I'd imagine.

The best solution, regarding English devolution in my view, would be devolved regional assemblies for England & Cornwall. Each with a nice manageable population of 5-10million (and Cornwall significantly less). Each of the them would be similar to the Scottish Parliament and the UK can move towards a proper federal system along the lines of Germany. However this raises even more problems.

Firstly regional devolution has been rejected once before, by the North East of England in 2004.

Secondly, England is a proud and historically united nation. Any moves to "regionalise" England would be met with fierce resistance, especially if the EU tin-foil-hatters run wild with it. It's the kind of thing that should be done within sovereign nations, but not to a nation within a nation-state (if that makes any sense). Diluting a national identity in this way is storing problems for the future.

Though you could point to Spain as an example where this has happened successfully. Castile is divided into several autonomous regions.

Last but not least. There's independence for all the constituent nations of the UK. And we all lived happily ever after. Right?

Obviously from a nationalist perspective, I would go with "English votes for English laws" in its rawest form (without double majority). It would be chaos. It would make Westminster look bad, borderline incompetent and could make the UK ungovernable in a Belgian sense.

However the pragmatist in me would point towards an English devolution settlement, preferably regional, as it is most workable (in theory).

Ultimately (and much more importantly) how devolution emerges and evolves in England is a matter for our English friends to decide. And decide alone.


  1. Having lived in England for several decades I can say that the English have strong regional identities, the problem is how you define the regions and what power you give to them. The North East referendum was lost because the powers offered were fairly inconsequential, think little more than the London Assembly.

  2. The English won't go for regional assemblies. It's got no legs. In Spain too the Labour party (PSOE) are cutting down on the powers of the regions. They were only created so as to 'nomalise' that is make more Spanish, the autonomy which they had to give to the Basques, Catalans and Galicians.

    The English won't vote for regionalism - what are the borders? The English won't either put up with labour winning the next UK election on the back of votes from Wales and Scotland (not that I think Labour will win the next UK election, either).

    We'll muddle on for another generation and then there'll be de facto federalism if not de jure. But the England will still be the 'elephant' in the room.

    Cardiff Boy

  3. So you think the answer is to slice us up into English regions? How nice of you to decide what we want, and what we need! -When the idea of the Welsh Assembly was being discussed in a pub in Shewsbury we were told to 'keep our bloody opinions to ourselves' by some very polite visiting Welshmen, who drank our beer and abused our country.

    May I now give you the same advice - and at least I am not drinking your beer when I do so.

  4. Cibwr - It's safe to say some regions of have a strong identity but as you and Cardiff Boy say it's will be hard to define the borders of any regions properly. It's all-England or bust it seems.

    Clun - Which part of "ultimately (and much more importantly) how devolution emerges and evolves in England is a matter for our English friends to decide. And decide alone" didn't you understand?

    I actually agree with you and I don't think Welsh MP's should be deciding what happens in England any more than vice versa.

    The future of England and English devolution rests in English hands alone, don't let anyone else (including Paul Murphy) tell you differently.

  5. For those of us who are connoisseurs of “Welsh in pubs” anecdotes Clun has just added a new variant for our delectation!

  6. I have long thought as an englishman that proper regional government was the way forward, and that, say, three executives with parliaments/assemblies for the North, the Midlands and the South, with powers similar to those of the Welsh Assembly and Government, would pass a referendum in England with some ease.

    The reason why the proposals for the north-east failed was in part because the boundaries were artificial (people need to decide what region they are in, not have it imposed on them) but mainly because the assembly would have had no powers worth mentioning. They would have taken some road responsibilities from DfT and everything else (which was anyway mainly only strategic town planning and transportation) was taken from the counties and unitary authorities. It was pretend devolution and people saw through.

    The thing which will stop any meaningful devolution in England is not people in England but Westminster/Whitehall: our MPs and the civil servants. Leaving defence out of account, the only substantial toys they have left to play with are those in England. They won't want to be left just with defence, foreign affairs, the benefit system and fixing annual budgets to occupy their time. So it won't happen.

    So my guess is that we will stumble on until we get a government without a majority in England imposing things people in England don't like (yet higher tuition or NHS fees not applying elsewhere?), at which point everything will blow up. At that point the budgetary and governmental system for the UK will be up for grabs and people outside England may well wish the issue had been settled properly without it being infected by feelings of crossness and resentment. To add additional spice, this will also probably arise at a time when Scotland's oil revenue is on a steep decline.

  7. England has the same right to be governed as a Whole Nation by it's own people as any other nation has the right.
    It is none of the Business of Welsh MPs period!
    There is no need for the UK to break up when there is an English parliament, but It will break up at this rate without one.
    Devolution has been ill though out, it been done for the Scots primerely, it is completed dicriminatory, and predudice agsint the English and therefore racist. Many people want the UK to break up, so to stop it Scots, Welsh and NI Mps must but out. Thank you.

  8. Anon 14:12 and Chris, thanks for the comments.

    Anon - Your suggestion of 3 executives makes a lot of sense. However since devolution, in Wales and Scotland there have been a lot of complaints from "peripheral" regions that "everything goes to Cardiff/The Central Belt". I could forsee something similar happening with regard Manchester in the North and Birmingham in the Midlands. There would probably need to be 6-8 regions to spread things out a bit. Could the London Assembly be upgraded a "proper" executive as well?

    To be frank, I don't really care what MP's think about powers drifting away from them. If people thought they were getting such a good from them there wouldn't be any sort of devolution at all! Devolve power down, and shrink Westminster down accordingly.

    Self-preservation is no excuse to block the will of the English or any of the other nations.

    Chris - Devolution has indeed been a mess, and yes it was done primarily for the Scots and to bring some normality to Northern Ireland. Devolution for Wales was probably only there at Ron Davies's insistance, though we'll never know the full story as the cabinet records have been kept secret.

    England and Cornwall have a right to feel aggrieved at the current devolution settlement. With Labour out of office I think the CEP can put a lot of pressure on them to include English devolution for 2016, or even earlier. It's not ideal riding on Labour coat-tails but it's the best chance IMHO.

  9. England and Cornwall? Well, let Cornwall have a referendum on whether is is part of England first or not, and we'll go on from there. As far as I can see, at the moment Cornwall is a part of England. And the UK Government may foster a slight amount of "divide and rule" regarding that, but it will go no further. Let the people speak - and even if the people of Cornwall make the decision to become a separate nation on the misguided grounds that they are "Celts", and the English are tyranical and relatively recent invaders (ever heard of the Cheddar Man?) so be it.

    I do find this "fraternal" posturing from Wales towards Cornwall rather difficult to understand.

    Let the people of Cornwall decide!

  10. Could we please bury this English regionalism once and for all? Nobody outside the political class wants it (and the political class is so unrepresentative that it's tempting to say they're not entitled to express any views).

    What we need (and what more than two thirds of the voters in England want) is a pan-English parliament that represents ALL parts of England. Such a parliament would probably need a system of checks and balances to prevent London and the southeast overwhelming the rest of England, but it is achievable. Most of all, politicians from outside England should keep their grubby noses out of England's affairs. After all, MPs from England have next to zero say on what happens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  11. I support an Assembly for England, along the lines of the 1999 Welsh assembly - no law making, not police or criminal justice - just glorified county council without the tax raising powers.

    And then it is up to them! I would say that just from a position of good governance, they should devolve further, but that is up to the, They would be one of the most centralised countries in the World, but, if that is what they want, it's fine by me!

    I think that there are two reasons the NE devolution referendum was lost. First - the NE is a totally artificial concept, that few people identify with, and secondly - it was being championed by John Prescott, and personally, I wouldn't even buy a second hand car from that man. Would you?

    But as a Welsh nationalist, I would Welcome an English devolved assembly. People who want to preserve the union should as well, because the alternative is a total dissolution of the union - driven by England.

  12. "I support an Assembly for England, along the lines of the 1999 Welsh assembly - no law making, not police or criminal justice - just glorified county council without the tax raising powers."

    Why? Awww - Poor Sionnyn, a nasty English person upset you then? Can't let over 55 million people have the democratic right to govern themselves, now can we? Not when they raise most of the tax revenue the UK relies on!!

    That's over 55 million English people, getting angrier and angrier and sitting right on your doorstep!!