Why the government can’t understand calls for an English Parliament

The government’s recent response to an online petition calling for a referendum on English independence – not submitted although signed by myself – doesn’t appear to have provoked much commentary; unless I missed it. First the text of the petition:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to grant the English people a referendum on independence for England.”

Details of Petition:

“68% of English people want an English Parliament. 59% of English people want Scotland to leave the UK. The will of the English people for self-rule within the United Kingdom is flagrantly ignored because, we are told, an English Parliament within a federal UK would break up the Union. Well maybe English people would prefer independence to being 3rd class citizens within a United Kingdom. Let’s ask them.”

Now the ‘response’:

“The Government supports the Union of the United Kingdom. We recognise that the devolution settlement is an issue of continued public interest, but we do not believe that there is a groundswell of support for an English Parliament.

“The Government believes that it is not necessary to establish a separate English Parliament to balance the current devolution settlements in the United Kingdom as England is already the dominant partner and English interests are fully represented. English constituency MPs currently total over 85% of Members in Parliament and they represent over 85% of the population of the UK. An English Parliament would only be a fraction smaller than the existing UK Parliament. Furthermore, such a Parliament would dominate policy decisions and it would be likely to become bureaucratic and difficult to pass legislation, particularly if there were a different party in Government at Westminster, than that of the suggested English Parliament. The Government is taking steps to increase regional accountability including through the introduction of Regional Ministers.

“The Union is bound together not just by common identity and citizenship but by the enduring interests of the nations that form the Union. Inside the Union, all of its parts share resources, and pool risks, to the benefit of each. The UK shares access to its natural resources, but more important the human resources that are the diverse people living here. The risks that are pooled, and carried together, are inherently uncertain, and increasingly volatile. They include the challenges of thriving in an increasingly competitive globalised economy, whose demands vary ever more swiftly, the constantly evolving threat of international terrorism, and major challenges like climate change: in meeting all of these, the United Kingdom is stronger together.”

The first thing to be observed here is that the government does not actually address the main demand of the petition: a referendum on independence. The response does not even refer to independence, talking merely of the merits or otherwise of an English parliament; and that only in the context of devolution rather than federation, which was the option for an English parliament mentioned in the details of the petition. We must conclude, therefore, that the government has absolutely no view on the subject of English independence; or if it has, it’s not prepared to discuss the subject. In addition, the government’s response does not engage with the proposal for a referendum: any kind of referendum – even on an English parliament. The reason given: “we do not believe that there is a groundswell of support for an English Parliament”. Well, if there isn’t, then a referendum would pose no threat; if there is – as the petition details alleged, referring to some well publicised opinion polls – then maybe we have a democratic right to have our say.

The second paragraph of the government’s response makes it clear what the fundamental basis is for the government’s rejection not only of the idea of an English parliament or independence but also any referendum on them. It’s a defence of UK parliamentary sovereignty, as opposed to the notion of English popular sovereignty, which is the basis for arguing that if the majority of English people want an English parliament or independence, they have a right to express and satisfy their will on the matter.

The crux of the government’s argument is contained in the opening sentence of that paragraph: “The Government believes that it is not necessary to establish a separate English Parliament to balance the current devolution settlements in the United Kingdom as England is already the dominant partner and English interests are fully represented”. The government then goes on to expand this statement with the familiar observation that over 85% of UK MPs represent English constituencies, corresponding to over 85% of the UK population living in England. The conclusion that is often drawn from this, but which is not explicitly made here, is that the UK parliament is a de facto English parliament: that because English MPs so outnumber those from other parts of the UK, this means that not only England’s ‘interests’ can never be overruled but, in fact, England actually dominates the other UK countries. By implication, therefore, far from being imbalanced against England’s interests, the present devolution settlement actually re-balances the weighting of the UK parliament in England’s favour!

Of course, this is a ludicrous view, and the gaping flaws in this argument are very well known:

  • English MPs do not vote or act in a block to defend or ‘represent’ England’s interests: they are almost completely subservient to party whips enforcing the will of the UK executive
  • the executive itself, as a result of the devolution settlement, has a joint UK-wide and England-only remit; in making laws and decisions that apply to England only, it is not accountable to any English voters, as leading members of the executive were elected in Scotland (including the PM); and it relies on the parliamentary votes on England-only matters of many MPs that were also not elected in England
  • the proposition that because 85% of MPs are from English constituencies, their will cannot be overridden is manifestly false: it has been overridden in a number of important votes, such as those on foundation hospitals, university tuition fees and, more recently, 42 days detention without trial – all swung by MPs from outside England, against the majority of English MPs
  • the use of the ‘85% of MPs are English’ argument is a pathetic attempt to suggest that the composition of the House of Commons is proportionate to the popular vote in England: more people voted Conservative than Labour in England at the last election, and yet we’ve been saddled with an unpopular Labour government whose comfortable majority is boosted by the greater support it enjoyed in Scotland and Wales than in England.

But my point here is not to rehearse these arguments, because they are irrelevant with respect to the conceptual foundation of the government’s view. If the government can’t engage with the idea that the will of the English people should be respected in matters of English governance, then it won’t engage with arguments like the ones above, which rely on the same concept of the sovereignty of the English people: a view that, on matters of government that relate to England only, we have a right to a parliament that is directly elected by the English people and whose composition reflects the way they have voted.

Don’t be ridiculous: this is the UK we’re talking about! And in the UK, we have parliamentary sovereignty, not popular sovereignty. So when the government talks about “English interests [being] fully represented” in the UK parliament, this is far from being the same thing as, for instance, ‘the will of the English people being fully expressed’ in parliament. The government is using the term ‘representation’ in a different sense from that which you or I might understand it: that parliament might adequately ‘represent’ our wishes because it was democratically elected via a proportional voting system.

No, under the unwritten UK constitution, MPs ‘represent’ their constituencies in the sense that they symbolise, personify or ‘instantiate’ their electors within the body of parliament: your MP therefore ‘re-presents’ you – is the manifestation of you and your fellow constituents within parliament. This is the way democratic legitimacy is conferred on the concept of parliamentary sovereignty, which in fact still derives from the absolute rule of the monarch: ultimate power is in one sense merely delegated to parliament. This means that members of the parliament in turn are sovereign: their will is absolute and prevails. Consequently, each member of parliament must have complete free will to vote as their conscience dictates on any measure. This means that, although you may have voted for your MP purely or largely on the basis of the party programme (s)he was standing on, (s)he is not your delegate: someone who is obliged to vote in the way that the majority of his or her constituents might wish.

While, in theory, this status of MPs as representatives of the people creates a sort of indirect popular sovereignty and means that MPs are free agents who can vote against their party’s policies if their conscience dictates; in reality, this creates a situation where the actual wishes of voters (the will of the people) are quite secondary and almost irrelevant. What matters is ultimately only MPs’ exercise of their sovereign, free will as your representatives. And, as we know, that will is corrupted by the party machines, which enforce loyalty to the policies of the executive and the parties. And this means that all sorts of measures that enjoy very little popular support within the country – including new policies that were never part of any election manifesto – can be forced through parliament and still claim democratic legitimacy, since it was the people’s free representatives (the ‘instance’ of the people itself within parliament) that voted for them.

It is in this sense only that the government’s numerical logic (85%+ of UK MPs being English, based on 85%+ of the population being English) has any merit: England’s interests are ‘fully represented’ because, and only because, there are proportionally as many ‘representatives of the English people’ within parliament as there are English people within the population as a whole.

What a load of hogwash, if not whitewash! But if you follow the government’s logic, this would in fact mean that parliament fully guarantees and protects England’s interests because the 85% of MPs that are English are in theory entirely free to act as a block and impose their will; and therefore, if any measure were unambiguously contrary to England’s interests, it could and would be defeated. But more fundamentally, in that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty involves a de-coupling of MPs from the actual wishes of their voters, ‘England’s interests’ are in fact defined purely in terms of what could be referred to as ‘parliament’s sovereign determination of what is in England’s interests’. In other words, as I said above, ‘England’s interests’ are not what the majority of English people might think they are but what parliament determines them to be.

This assumption then leads to an embarrassing logical circularity in the remainder of the second paragraph of the government’s response to the independence-referendum petition. I’ll repeat the offending passage here for the reader’s convenience:

“An English Parliament would only be a fraction smaller than the existing UK Parliament. Furthermore, such a Parliament would dominate policy decisions and it would be likely to become bureaucratic and difficult to pass legislation, particularly if there were a different party in Government at Westminster, than that of the suggested English Parliament.”

This is totally incoherent nonsense. It involves the assumption that the existing UK parliament would continue as it is even if there were an English parliament. But the whole point of the federal model is that it would be the English parliament that would be the exclusive legislative and administrative body within its areas of responsibility. The UK parliament, on the other hand, would be a greatly reduced body whose competence would be limited only to matters delegated to it by the sovereign parliaments of the separate nations.

By contrast, the government’s response describes the working of a hypothetical English parliament as if this body were merely a subordinate part of a UK parliament, which in one sense it would be if it were a devolved body. In other words, the government is maintaining its core and unquestioned assumption of (UK) parliamentary sovereignty at the very same time as it describes an English parliament, which, in reality, could and should be an autonomous legislative body not answerable to the UK parliament but to the English people. The result is that the government can conceive of an English parliament only on the model of a sort of parliament within the UK parliament (subordinated to UK parliamentary sovereignty). In fact, what the government describes here is not an English parliament at all: it’s just the English parliament as it already exists subsumed within the UK parliament that supposedly ‘represents England’s interests’. The only difference is that the English bit of that parliament would be separately (and perhaps proportionally) elected, creating the government’s fiction of a Westminster parliament whose sovereign will would be thwarted by an English parliament that could be controlled by a different party or parties.

But this is completely unreal: an English parliament would have separate, clearly demarcated areas of responsibility; so the legislative and policy conflict with the UK parliament the government refers to should not arise. But the government is incapable of thinking of an English parliament as actually having a separate remit and sovereignty outside of the present form of UK parliamentary sovereignty. And hence the government’s description of an English parliament is not an engagement with the issues at all but merely a defence of its own fundamental assumptions and the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.

I won’t even begin to go into all the issues evoked by the last sentence in the government’s second paragraph: “The Government is taking steps to increase regional accountability including through the introduction of Regional Ministers”. In what sense do ‘regional ministers’ constitute an increase in the government’s accountability to ‘regions’ (whatever they’re supposed to be) that haven’t elected those ministers, let to alone to England? But if you’ve followed my argument so far, the government’s model of accountability does not actually involve voters directly electing representatives whose job is to ensure that those voters’ wishes are respected at whatever level of governance is concerned – regional, national or UK-wide. On the contrary, the government is sovereign because it is answerable to a sovereign parliament whose members ‘represent’ (instantiate) their constituents. So the will of the people in this matter, as in that of an English parliament, is irrelevant: only the independent, sovereign will of the people’s representatives and their executive is of any consequence. So if that executive graciously decrees that it’s going to try to bring government closer to the English people by appointing English-regional ministers (note there’s no such thing as ministers for the similar-sized ‘regions’ that are Scotland and Wales), then we the people should jolly well be appreciative and shut up about a sovereign English parliament!

The last paragraph of the government’s response goes on to talk about the strategic and economic benefits of the UK sticking together in this era of global uncertainties and threats. It would be possible to tease out of it a defence of the Barnett Formula: ‘sharing resources’ and ‘pooling risks’. But I won’t get into that here, either!

The key point I want to bring out of this discussion is that the government and the other unionist parties are incapable of engaging with the calls for an English parliament, let alone for referendums on such a parliament or on English independence. This is because they are wedded to the notion of UK parliamentary sovereignty, which is thought of as adequately representing the needs and interests of England based on a particular meaning of the term ‘representation’ that is different from the way advocates of an English parliament generally use it. ‘Representation’, for Westminster parliamentarians, doesn’t mean defending and implementing the will of the people; it means being the people-in-parliament. This means that defending the people’s interests involves MPs acting as nominally free agents (just as every constituent they represent is a free human being) guided by conscience.

These are worthy principles; but the way they are implemented by the UK parliament in fact grossly distorts democracy and allows an unelected English government to carry on as if it had a democratic mandate that it clearly lacks by any normal modern standards of democratic governance and human justice. But the only way in which we’ll be able to get the Establishment to budge on this is by attacking and overhauling the principle of (UK) parliamentary sovereignty that underpins the government’s whole thinking in these matters. We need to replace this principle with one of popular sovereignty for the nations of the UK. And so in my view, it’s more important to campaign on this principle than for an English parliament alone. Simply pressing the Establishment for an EP falls on deaf ears with the government, as its response to the e-petition discussed here demonstrates. The government can’t hear, one might even say it has no comprehension of, the case for an English parliament because its assumption of parliamentary sovereignty is so systemic and absolute.

But if we succeed in winning popular support for popular sovereignty, then an English parliament – or even independence – will surely follow.


7 Responses

  1. I briefly mentioned it, but your analysis puts mine to shame.

  2. Thanks, Toque.

  3. There is another English independence petition on 10 Downing St’s e-petitions


  4. Thanks for the reference, Stephen. I’ve signed this petition, even though I don’t think calling for a referendum on independence now, ahead of any Scottish poll, is the right tactics – but I agree on principle that it’s our right.

    I think we need to try to get the principle of English popular sovereignty accepted, which will then entitle us to determine our own form of governance and constitution – we won’t have to go begging to the PM to graciously allow us a vote.

  5. […] recipe for independence? —- Why the government cant understand calls for an English Parliament A National Conversation For Engl… Now this is well worth reading . . . and re-reading! It is closely argued in places. Whether or […]

  6. […] of view – what some of us still prefer to call ‘England’ is merely a part (indeed, the ‘dominant’ part, supposedly) of the UK. Moreover, owing to devolution, ‘England’ is the part of the UK […]

  7. […] England is, supposedly, dominant there. I’ve discussed the specious nature of this argument elsewhere. But the whole point of this present proposal, in fact, is to move away from a situation in which […]

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