Answering the English question – left by what since 1999 has been an asymmetric devolution of power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but, the special case of London aside, not to England’s regions or city regions – remains the conspicuous, unfinished business of devolution.
Despite devolution elsewhere England remains one of the most centralised nations in Europe. English devolution has been addressed only half-heartedly; indeed, chancellor Osborne’s city region deals are more about offloading the costs of the state onto the locality than genuinely decentralising power: the Treasury’s main motive has been more to reduce central public expenditure than to empower local communities.
Nor has the English votes for English laws drive been about devolving power; rather it has been about rearranging House of Commons procedure in a flawed, contradictory, messy way that does not really answer the important and legitimate English question.
English identity should self-evidently be just as important as Welsh or Scottish identity, and we need to ensure it is constitutionally recognised and respected, just as devolution has done for Wales and Scotland. Otherwise the current rumblings of discontent, not just on the right but also on the left of politics in England, could become an uproar fuelling English separatism at the expense of inclusive British pluralism.
In the Constitution Reform Group – convened by the senior Conservative, Lord Salisbury, but all-party and non-party in its membership – we have sought a more constitutionally robust solution which preserves the UK, albeit in an entirely new framework.
We are currently finalising details for a new Act of Union to be published in July. This will turn on its head the whole process of devolution which to date has been top-down: that is to say, powers and responsibilities have been devolved from the centre down to the nations of the UK. This model has worked up to a point, but especially for Scotland is no longer durable.
Instead, we propose that the nations – and potentially the English regions as well as London – should federate upwards, granting to the central UK state only those powers and responsibilities they wish. In that sense the UK would become a voluntary federal union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (the latter of course subject to the Good Friday constitutional arrangements).
The long title to our draft Act of Union bill restates the purpose of the United Kingdom with a “renewed constitutional form for the peoples of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to join together to form the United Kingdom” and affirms “that the peoples of those nations and parts have chosen to continue to pool their sovereignty for specified purposes, and to provide universal citizenship with social and economic rights”.
It assumes that each constitutional unit of the United Kingdom – nations or regions – manages its own affairs and determines those matters (especially defence and foreign affairs but also macro-economic policy and pensions) which are best arranged by a central government and Parliament.
For England we have suggested two alternative models. One involves replacing the Commons with an English parliament whilst abolishing the Lords and replacing it with a UK federal parliament. Or, as I favour, transforming the Commons into a UK federal parliament, substantially devolving powers within England and radically reforming the Lords into a fully elected – or possibly 80 per cent elected – Senate.
There are several serious problems about replacing the Commons with an English parliament. First, England constitutes 84 per cent of the UK population and 87 per cent of UK GDP: it dwarfs the rest, and the English first minister could end up being more significant than the prime minister in influence and certainly in resources. Second, a new federal UK parliament would need to be established for the whole union and if, as has been proposed, it replaces the House of Lords (reformed or not) there would be no scrutinising or revising second chamber. Third, leaving only England occupying that iconic House of Commons arena will undoubtedly act as a green light to separatism, certainly in Scotland but probably more widely.
The 1973 Kilbrandon Royal Commission on the constitution made a convincing case against a separate English parliament which has never been rebutted: such a federation of four units would be “so unbalanced as to be unworkable. It would be dominated by the overwhelming political importance and wealth of England”.
In solving the English problem it is vital to ensure that the central government and parliament are not thought of as the English government and parliament. They are the government and parliament of the centre, the union, federation or whatever else it may be termed. This distinction is very important for the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish: but it is also very important for the English.
Making an effective distinction between the governance of England and the governance of the United Kingdom also frees up the people of England to enjoy comparable powers of self-government on health, education, local government and other matters through a gradually developing system of self-determination for regions or city regions – like London already has – with the definition of those regions to be voluntarily and democratically agreed.
I would favour substantial devolution of powers within England – over education, health, housing, economic development, agriculture and so on, like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have. Whitehall has to be forced to let go. Otherwise, the case for an English parliament will strengthen.
In such a modern federal UK, English interests could be protected through regional devolution and by reforms within a continuing UK Westminster parliament which both preserved the equality of MPs across the UK and introduced special procedures to ensure the voices of English MPs could have weight over any English-specific legislation.
Such a modern Britain, as the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown has argued, would no longer be viewed as an “all-powerful centralised unitary state … but as a constitutional partnership of equals in what is in essence a voluntary multinational association.”
The Westminster parliament could have continuing responsibility for overall economic policy, taxation and spending totals, foreign and defence policy, security (including energy security) and social security – unless any of these areas were sought by the devolved legislatures who would have responsibility for most other policy areas, by mutual agreement.
Nevertheless, answering the English question in this way has sometimes been challenged because, when the question was put to voters in north-east England in 2004, they rejected a new assembly for their region. But that was a cautiously conservative model with very limited powers. Campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote, I could sense that voters were suspicious of adding another tier of government which, unlike in London, had minimal powers. Moreover, with two tiers of local councils remaining unreformed, this made for an unwieldy three-tier region/county/district structure – inviting accusations which resonated with voters of ‘yet more politicians and more costs’. By contrast, Wales and Scotland had unitary local government when their 1997 referendums were held.
The Labour government’s 2002 white paper, Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions, had envisaged eight regional bodies based on the established eight economic planning regions, but in retrospect that was too prescriptive. The concession of only limited powers, duplication through too many layers of unreformed local councils, and the south-eastbeing clumsily constituted to the north, south, east and west of London, proved unpopular.
However, today, with city regions like Manchester also finding favour, a mixed, more permissive structure would be preferable. It is probable that the north-east, Cornwall and Yorkshire/Humberside would want to lead the way and other regions or city regions would likely follow, as the alternative would be getting left behind, continuing to be ruled by Whitehall instead of claiming the opportunities of empowerment already enjoyed by Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and Londoners.
As Gordon Brown argued compellingly in his 2014 book My Scotland, Our Britain, the incontrovertible advantage of modern Britain is its 20th century innovation: the pooling and sharing of risks and resources across the whole of the UK to ensure common welfare and decent standards of life for all citizens, regardless of nationality or where you live; common UK-wide old age pensions, common UK social insurance (sick pay, health insurance, unemployment insurance and labour exchanges), common UK child and family benefits, a common UK minimum wage, and a UK system of equalising resources, so that everyone irrespective of where they live has the same political, social and economic rights, and not simply equal civil and political rights.
Pooling and sharing the UK’s resources also enables redistribution from richer to poorer parts of the UK – whether constituent parts of a nation like the coalfield communities of the south Wales valleys or regions of England such as the north-east. With around 40 per cent of UK GDP concentrated in London and the southeast, separatists have no answer to the compellingly powerful case for maintaining the integrity of the UK: redistributing resources from its better to less well-off parts, and guaranteeing equal opportunity and security for all UK citizens regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability or faith.
That has meant, Brown showed, that while inside the European Union the average income of the typical citizen of the poorest country is just 20 per cent of that of the richest country, and in the US the income of the poorest state is 55 per cent of that of the richest, the average income of the typical Scot is 96 per cent the average income of an English citizen; for Wales the figure is 87 per cent.
But there is an important distinction to make between an ideal devolution deal and the current government’s belated enthusiasm for devolving not just powers but taxes. Theirs is an ideological attempt to shrink the Whitehall state, offloading as much responsibility as possible onto individual citizens to fend for themselves, outsourcing to private providers and subcontracting tax and spending to existing devolved bodies.
Having strenuously opposed political devolution in the past, the Conservative government now see the virtues of economic devolution in neoliberal terms. And in that respect, at least, the outcomes if not the ideologies of nationalism and neoliberalism can be convergent, because under both the redistributive power of the UK state is either severed or stunted.
The reason they give is greater tax accountability – a reason which of course has merit. But then examine carefully the real motive. At least since the banking crisis, David Cameron has been consistently explicit about downsizing government and cutting spending. What better way to do that in the case of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than cutting their central block grants distributed according to the Barnett formula, and instead devolving responsibility for raising the shortfall?
Then add in an important consequence. Despite warm reassurances about indexation, divorced from a direct link to the tax revenues raised nationally from by far the wealthiest part of the population – London and the south-east – Wales especially, as a low income nation, could be very badly short changed, as could less wealthy regions and cities of England.
All the English regions have significantly bigger economies and populations than Northern Ireland and, with the exception of the north-east, Wales.
Devolution within England is therefore eminently feasible and should now be pursued as the best route to bringing government just as close to the English as it has become to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish. Thereby comprehensively answering the English question without jeopardising the union.