How to prevent the sabotage of the English political voice

 

There are already frantic elite attempts to fudge the English question. As soon as the NO vote was certain, the mainstream media, LibDem and Labour politicians started pushing the idea of devolving the powers Scotland had to either English regions or councils. The BBC was particularly assiduous in this respect with Radio 5, who started their propagandising for devolution (which would deny England a Parliament) as soon as it became clear in the early hours of the morning that the NO vote would win.

Devolving to English regions (or even councils) the powers enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament after the new powers are added, manifestly cannot achieve what Cameron wants, namely: equality of treatment for England. For example, Scotland is to have new tax raising powers over income tax. If such powers were given to English regions or large conurbations, the result would be a hideously complex post-code lottery which would set one area against another.

There would also be opportunity for financial calamities. Imagine what would happen if one area suffered a severe shortfall in revenue under such a tax regime? This could happen because they lowered their rates and then failed to attract enough new taxpayers to balance the low tax rates or because there was a flight from higher tax areas. Would what remained of central government in the UK be willing to stand idly by and allow vital public services in the afflicted area to fall into disuse? Most probably not, but that would raise a problem: if much of the revenue raising had been devolved, where exactly would the money come from to bail the “at risk” region or council out? But even if central government did have the funds, it would be politically toxic for them to be handing out money to a region or city which could not fund its public services because it had set its local tax rates too low. Solvent regions or cities would be up in arms. There would be plenty of issues such as this. The whole thing would be an administrative mess of heroic proportions. The Spanish example of bankrupt regional governments is a terrible warning of what can go wrong.

But Regional assemblies would not work even if their remit was restricted to genuinely local matters and their taxation powers remained small. No English region has anything approaching as strong an identity as any of the home nations. Even the North East and Cornwall – the two English areas most commonly touted as having a strong regional identity – would be unsuitable. The North East is comprised of Northumberland and Durham, but that has strong antipathies within it, for example, the rivalry between Newcastle and Sunderland. Cornwall is too small to stand on its own – with much of its population not being Cornish but incomers – and a South West Region comprising Cornwall, Devon and Somerset would have no natural unity. The Northwest would include Manchester and Liverpool, two major cities with little love for one another.

At the level of devolution to towns and cities, this would raise the problem of what to do with the considerable stretches of England without large cities or substantial towns. That would rule out extending the powers of large cities and towns to the surrounding countryside in much of England.

What needs to be done now?

The outcome of the Scottish independence referendum has resulted in the breaking of a particularly effective omerta within the British political classes, namely, that there should be no acknowledgement of the wilful damage done to English interests by the devolution settlement of the late 1990s, which has excluded her from having a national political voice while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were given such a voice and ever increasing devolved powers.

Having denied England her due for 16 years, the Tory Party has suddenly embraced the idea of constitutional equality with the rest of the UK, with the necessary changes being made in tandem with the new powers so recklessly promised by Gordon Brown during the last days of the Referendum campaign. No matter that the Tory Party has had this sudden conversion to being the upholder of English interests because it is a way of marginalising the Labour Party by threatening to remove the influence of its many non-English seat MPs; no matter that so far all that is proposed is English votes for English laws rather than an English Parliament; no matter that the Labour and LibDem leaders have rejected the idea. What matters is that the English devolution train has started to move and once moving it will be very difficult to stop.

Although English votes for English laws on policies developed by MPs from England and put forward by an English executive would be very messy and ultimately impractical, the adoption of the scheme   could be a springboard to an English parliament. This would be partly because the public would see that it was not working efficiently or fairly and partly because the habit of publicly speaking about English interests and English constitutional circumstances would have been formed. That would embolden politicians and the mainstream media to advocate an English Parliament. If it were only English votes for English laws with MPs outside of England still forming part of the policy determining group for the legislation for England, this clear evidence of blatant inequality between England and the other Home Nations would boost demand for English votes for English laws to be scrapped and English Parliament put in its place.

The danger for England is that she will end up without anything which goes anyway towards remedying the disadvantage she is presently under. Nothing will be decided before the 2015 General Election and if Labour form a government, whether on their own or in coalition with the parties other than the Tories, the chances of English votes for English laws getting off the ground is remote. In such circumstances the issue of English devolution would probably be kicked into the long grass with things such as a constitutional convention and the devolution of some unimportant extra powers to the cities. I doubt whether regional assemblies would be attempted because of the resounding rejection of an assembly in the North East in 2004. It would also look like treating England as a second class citizen.

If the Tories have a modicum of sense they will go to the country on a platform of English rights. Ideally, this should contain support for an English Parliament, but even English votes for English laws would have considerable traction with English electors because at long last there would be a major party which appeared to be “speaking for England”. Such a platform would place both Labour and the LibDems in an impossible electoral position, because a refusal to allow the English to have the same powers as the Scots, Welsh and Irish would be self-evidently unreasonable.

But there are dangers .The problem with giving Scotland ever greater powers is that it prepares them for independence (Wales and NI need not be worried about as serious independence candidates because they are such economic basket cases and their politicians know it). Personally I am very angry about devolution full stop, because the centrifugal forces it has released may well end up splitting the union. But there is no going back, so the only way England can be protected is to go for full federation with an English Parliament and equal powers for all four Home Country houses plus a federal parliament consisting of the members of the four Home Country houses.

In addition, England should work to remove all the potential bargaining chips that Scotland has.

England should go for this:

  1. The removal of Trident from Scotland.
  2. All military equipment to be made outside of Scotland.
  3. The removal of public service jobs in Scotland which deal with English administrative functions such as the administration of English social security near Glasgow.
  4. A limited written constitution defining the relationship between the four Home Countries with clauses which would make it a legal requirement to (a) make any decision to leave the union a matter for the entire UK electorate and (b) any referendum on independence to only be held after the terms of independence have been agreed.

Photo by hjjanisch

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