The great Victorian statesman, Benjamin Disraeli famously declared that “England is not governed by logic, but by Parliament”. It is perhaps surprising then that today’s Conservative party are pursuing ‘logical’ policies such as ‘English votes on English laws’, as a way of dealing with English governance. Gordon Brown has rightly rejected the policy, understanding that it is unworkable. Instead the new Prime Minister has tried to address the English Question by creating English regional ministers and select committees. This welcome move will give England a stronger voice in Westminster, but in itself is insufficient. Brown needs a further package of reforms which deal with the anomalies of devolution and improve the way England is governed by taking power away from the centre.
And he needs to move fast since the ‘English Question’ is rapidly moving up the political agenda. For the last 10 years constitutional anoraks and commentators have wondered how the English would react to the devolution settlement. For a long time the English didn’t seem to care. But such indifference is being replaced by growing rumbles of dissatisfaction: the proportion of English people identifying themselves as English rather than British has risen steadily, from 30 per cent in 1992 to 40 per cent in 2005. Recent opinion polls have put support for an English Parliament at over 50 per cent , with one poll even finding majority support for English independence. These polls must be handled with care, and may exaggerate support for particular policies, but they do indicate the direction of travel.
There are a cocktail of factors that may further catalyse changing public attitudes in England. There is growing English indignation at the policy differences devolution is opening up, for instance, over tuition fees and the different availability of some drugs on the NHS. Much stormier relations between Holyrood and Westminster can be expected, as well as questions about Brown’s own Scottishness and accusations from some parts of the media that England is governed by a ‘Scottish Raj’.
English votes on English laws may sounds seductively simple - and even fair – but it is neither. To identify an ‘English law’ is not straightforward as the devolution settlement does not provide water tight divisions of responsibilities. In practice each clause of each bill would have to be designated English, English and Welsh, or UK wide, leading to legislative hokey cokey in the Commons.
But perhaps the biggest problem with English votes is that it could create a constitutional crisis far greater than the current West Lothian anomaly. If in the future the party composition of MPs in England differed from that of the UK, the prospect of a UK government able to pass fiscal and foreign policy but unable to govern its largest constituent part - England – could well be a fast track to the end of the Union.
A fully fledged English Parliament must also be rejected. Such a body would create an incredibly lop-sided federation, as England contains over 80 per cent of the UK’s population and wealth. This would be a route to instability.
Rather than seeking a symmetrical or ‘purist’ response to the English Question Brown should stay in keeping with a time worn British constitutional approach – seeking answers that are widely accepted and workable. Building on what he has already announced and demonstrating his concern for fairness, Brown should further reduce number of Celtic MPs at Westminster. This would decrease the likelihood of votes being carried against an English majority of MPs. While the number of Scottish MPs has already been reduced following devolution, they remain overrepresented.
He should also open the question of reforming the Barnett formula for distributing public money to make it transparently fair and needs based. A review would demonstrate his concern for fairness, but also his concern for England. The North has long argued it receives less than its fair share, and of late Ken Livingstone has been expressing concern that London subsidises the rest of the country. Incorporating greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland would also make it hard for Alex Salmond to oppose.
But the best answer to the English Question would be to address the real grievance in England: the curse of overbearing centralism, which undermines the way the English are governed. Indeed perhaps, the most compelling argument against an English Parliament, is that the creation of such a body would be an act of centralisation, which is the last thing England needs. Instead England would do better from a new deal in central-local relations, with powers devolved to her localities and communities. The newly announced concordat with local government is an encouraging sign in this respect. Brown, who is keen to demonstrate his ability to ‘let go’, could make this his cause for England, and the centrepiece of his new constitutional settlement.
Guy Lodge and Katie Schmuecker are Researchers at the Institute for Public Policy Research