Devolution as it should (have) be(en)

One of the objections that is often raised to an English Parliament is that it would add a whole new large body of MEPs, as I suppose we’d have to call them (unfortunate clash with the European Parliament), on top of the existing 530-odd (or however many) Westminster MPs representing English constituencies. To say nothing of all the extra civil servants, running costs, new English-government departments and duplication of functions with the UK parliament.

This objection is in reality made up of straw (Jack Straw even). As those of us who support an English Parliament know, an EP would replace the Westminster parliament with respect to its England-only responsibilities, which presently constitute around 70% of its business at a rough guess. So an English parliament might well comprise a large body of MEPs (although it could arguably make do with fewer than the number of English-constituency MPs in the present Westminster parliament); and it would be the vestigial UK parliament (dealing only with genuinely UK-wide, reserved matters) that would be greatly reduced. The net effect could be a total number of English MEPs and UK MPs (representing the whole of the UK) that was more or less equivalent to the number of MPs now.

Apart from the fact that the two main parties do not want their power base stripped away from them, and that Westminster MPs fear that their jobs would be on the line, I think it is this vision of the Westminster parliament being superseded by an English parliament and perhaps even being scrapped altogether that must haunt the nightmares of the opponents to an EP. But this is precisely what it is: a nightmare vision, not the reality.

As proponents of an EP, we could offer to the political establishment a much less alarming, and alarmist, vision of an EP that they are more likely to embrace. This could be an English Parliament as the continuation of the present Westminster parliament. If the Westminster parliament is already 70% an English Parliament – in its activities if not its composition – why not just make it fully an English Parliament by removing the participation of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, who already can’t represent their own constituents in devolved matters and strictly have no business poking their noses into matters affecting only English constituencies?

There’d still be a requirement for a UK parliament to deal with reserved matters. But then it would be this much smaller UK parliament that would be the ‘new’ body that would need to be created under English devolution, not an English Parliament as such, as it would be the contracted Westminster Parliament (minus Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs) that would fulfil this function.

Clearly, there would be a huge amount of detail to work out if this idea were implemented, relating to issues such as the division of responsibilities between the UK and devolved parliaments and governments; the question of (UK) parliamentary versus national-popular sovereignty as embodied by the four national parliaments; and whether the new UK parliament were separately elected or would be made up of a representative sample of MPs from the national parliaments. In addition, there would have to be a uniform electoral system for the national parliaments, as it would be grossly unfair for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments to be elected under their present PR system while the English Parliament continued to be elected under First-Past-the-Post, which is designed to guarantee permanent unrepresentative parliamentary majorities for either of the two main parties. We might need a new system for all the national parliaments, preferably multi-member STV (Single Transferable Vote), which provides the most proportional results while preserving the link between the MP and his or her constituency.

Such a system might not even need to be a fully federal one, as previously outlined in my ‘Blueprint for a federal UK’: the state could continue to call itself ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ if the politicians and the people felt more comfortable with that. And it could still be conceived of as a unitary system of governance if, for instance, the parliaments / assemblies in each of the nations were defined as embodying the sovereign power of the state within their own areas of responsibility, while the UK parliament was sovereign in its own competencies.

But that’s not the main point I want to make here, which is that such a system is really how devolution should have been implemented from day one: the West Lothian and English Questions would simply not have arisen had the decision been taken that, as a result of devolution, it was now the Scottish MSPs and the Welsh AMs that would henceforth fulfil the role previously fulfilled by Scottish and Welsh MPs in devolved policy areas, leaving the Westminster Parliament as a body of English MPs dealing with exclusively English matters – while, obviously, separate arrangements would then need to have been made for the governance of UK-wide affairs.

And this is something that we could still achieve and indeed must achieve if we want both devolution, on the one hand, and a United Kingdom whose citizens enjoy democratic equality and the same right to a national parliament, on the other hand – meaning there has to be an English Parliament if there are going to be parliaments / assemblies for Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland. But the English variant could just be an evolution of the present Westminster Parliament rather than a devolution creating a whole new parliamentary body along the lines of those in the other nations of the UK.

Let the Westminster Parliament become what it already is in all but name in so many areas (an English Parliament), and then work out what separate arrangements we want for the remaining tier of UK-wide governance: not a new EP but a separating out of the English and UK-wide functions of the present UK Parliament, leading to the creation of a smaller new UK parliament – perhaps located away from Westminster altogether to enforce the principle that its functions are also separate.

Maybe this is a vision of English parliamentary (d)evolution that even the Westminster politicians could buy into: because their beloved Westminster parliament – but with fewer privileges and better representation of the popular vote – would remain intact.

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10 Responses

  1. This scenario does rather overlook Northern Ireland.

    When Blair finally departed and the London commentariat had their chance to assess his legacy, I noticed a number regarded developments in Northern Ireland as ‘good’ but devolution in general as ‘bad’. What I’ve rarely seen discussed is the impact, if any, of Welsh and Scottish devolution on the position of Ulster Unionists and more indirectly the Republic of Ireland. Surely after September 1997 they realised, if no more than on a subliminal level, that whatever they did or didn’t do the United Kingdom was about to change significantly?

    If all four constituent parts had had to move together we’d probably all still be dancing to the tune of Ulster Unionists and Whitehall centrists. Not a happy thought.

  2. Yes, but then you would say that, wouldn’t you, Hendre? There is no reason why the scenario outlined by David should not work. NI now has devolution to a degree. England alone has nothing, except for regionalisation imposed by the UK Government, and has never been asked. Apart from the NE referendum, where 78% voted NO to regionalisation and were then ignored.

  3. My remarks were directed at David’s statement that “such a system is really how devolution should have been implemented from day one” rather than at his suggestions for the way ahead.

    In theory yes but in practice some form of home rule all round would have been far too radical for Westminster and Whitehall to cope with. After the business with Derek Conway & Sons a couple of MPs admitted that Westminster still conducts itself like some form of 19th century (or was it 18th century?) gentlemen’s club. Westminster is innately conservative. And I suspect the Sir Humphrey brigade are regrouping as we speak to prevent further loss of power.

    I didn’t comment specifically on the way forward as I suspect David would prefer to hear English views. But there is a sort of ‘Welsh interest’ in this matter since, before an English Parliament can come into existence within a UK context, the relationship between Wales and England will require a fair amount of ‘tidying up’.

  4. Discrimination! Discrimination! Discrimination! Discrimination against the entire English nation!
    Not the red-herring about the creation of an extra layer of bureaucracy for the English parliament again. Yawn! Considering that cost was NOT a consideration when the Scottish Parliament, Welsh National Assembly, and Northern Ireland Assembly were created. Why is it when an English parliament is mentioned?
    One simple fact. The anti-English enemy are bitter, twisted, nasty small-minded bigots who can’t fight us on a level playing field. That, is discrimination.
    What hypocrites. How often have I heard the victim mentality employed by them? “England takes all our money”. I still hear it. Now, let me think. Did the English attempt to stop the establishment of a scottish parliament? No! It was the same for the welsh and N. Irish assemblies. So, let’s get it straight when we talk about who is discriminating. The English are being discriminated against.
    The only reason that this victim mentality is still employed is because they want to make it appear that the English are the aggressors – what else is new – so they can stop us having democracy in our own land. Like I said, they’re hypocrites.

    Well, you people are fascists and stupid to boot. You think the EUROlanders are on your side; they’re not. Think ahead you anti-English we may be able to accuse you of baryecoia now; what about the future? Do you think the present situation is going to persist? Dream on.

    “…the English variant could just be an evolution of the present Westminster Parliament rather than a devolution creating a whole new parliamentary body along the lines of those in the other nations of the UK.”

    The Westminster parliament is where the English parliament used to be housed. Are you inferring that the English should not be equal to the scots, welsh and N. Irish? We want our own parliament back. No! We demand our English parliament back! I, for one, will never settle for anything other than equal treatment. I am not below them.
    And no, I do not want my English parliament riddled with old Westminster m.p.’s. They are finished and need to get proper jobs. They have consistently failed the English nation. Time after time, not just some of the time. I do not want any of them involved in the new English parliament!
    How do I know they’re corrupt? I lobbied my local mp in 2000. He did not want to hear what I had to say. He tried all kinds of tricks to discredit my argument; he failed. He was also too scared to face questioning by my fellow campaigners. That said it all. His name: Andrew McKinley. Why don’t you send him an e-mail and ask him what he thinks about an English parliament and English executive. I bet he won’t reply to you. And you call that demcracy. If the common person failed to do their job properly they’d be sacked, plain and simple. The same should apply to all politicians. All of them.

    “Let the Westminster Parliament become what it already is in all but name in so many areas (an English Parliament), and then work out what separate arrangements we want for the remaining tier of UK-wide governance: not a new EP but a separating out of the English and UK-wide functions of the present UK Parliament, leading to the creation of a smaller new UK parliament – perhaps located away from Westminster altogether to enforce the principle that its functions are also separate.”

    I understand what you’re stating; why should we take our time? Why should WE have to wait? It is anti-democratic. I think we’ve shown enough restraint already. Anyway, the enemy aren’t going to “work out” any arrangements with us. Look at what they’ve tried to do already. Do you seriously think they’re going to act maturely? Have you ever heard the comment those who ignore history…are blind? What about the West Lothian question? What about the Barnett formula?

    “…the two main parties do not want their power base stripped away from them…”

    The so-called “two main parties” are full of anti-English scots, welsh, irish and various others. They do not want their power taken away because then the English will rise and rise. They don’t want to lose power because it will give the English a chance to rise up. They do not want this. It has nothing to do with them not having jobs.
    The conservatives have anti-English whathisname as leader. What is his name? He is so inconsequential I can’t even remember it. Oh yeah, that’s it. “Scotch blood in my veins” Campbell. What a bloke hs is ah? Obviously, new labour have anti-English Gordon Brown as leader. Another fine example of scottishness no doubt. I do not see how either of these two could’ve become leaders of their respective parties if they wasn’t given the say so by the vast majority of these two parties employees. Therefore, I conclude that these “two main parties” are anti-English parties. It is also a myth to call them the two MAIN parties. I think many people, including scots would’nt dream of voting for the conservatives or new labour. Infact, many in England AND Scotland do not vote for either party. So, how are they the two main parties? They’re not.

    “…Westminster MPs fear that their jobs would be on the line, I think it is this vision of the Westminster parliament being superseded by an English parliament and perhaps even being scrapped altogether that must haunt the nightmares of the opponents to an EP.”

    Do you think this is a valid idea? Look at what Westminster m.p.’s have done in the last two decades. They’ve willingly sold the English down the river. Why should any English person care what happens to them? Give me one reason.

    “…this is a vision of English parliamentary (d)evolution that even the Westminster politicians could buy into: because their beloved Westminster parliament – but with fewer privileges and better representation of the popular vote – would remain intact.

    “Buy into”? I could not care less what “Westminster politicians” think about it. I feel that the majority of them have failed the English people time and time again. What we need to do is look at who has supported the English nation and who hasn’t. The time is coming.
    “Beloved Westminster parliament”? This is no argument. If they love Westminster so much how come they sold themselves, and us, to the EUROlanders? No! More like they have seen the future and they do not like what they see. Maybe they should’ve thought about the future before they allowed the EU to meddle in England’s affairs.

    Just as an aside, I wonder if the reestablishment of the English parliament would cost 414 million English pounds sterling? That is what the scottish parliament cost to build. It was supposed to cost 40 million. Nobody ever talks about the fact that they already had an available building in which to house the scottish m.p.’s, but chose to spend all that money on a completely new building. Money from the U.K. budget to, i.e. it wasn’t scottish money that built “their” building.
    Nobody ever talks about how much it cost to employ new m.p.’s/civil servants/running costs. I do not remember ever hearing any scottish individual moan and groan about it. Hypocrites!

  5. You seem to be suggesting that the UK parliament should be relegated to a fairly minor role with much fewer MPs. This separate smaller UK parliament would dealing with hugely important stuff however. It would have responsibility for defence, immigration, foreign affairs (with the right to declare war), macro-economic policy, social security, federal taxation. Personally I would want this UK government to have centre stage.

    Also, how do you define a nation? Northern Ireland is a completely artificial entity created after the partition of Ireland in 1921 yet you define it as a nation. Wales, as far as I know, has never existed as an independent nation. England and Scotland have been independent nations. The UK has been in existence for over 300 years, longer than Italy or Germany yet somehow, in your opinion, the UK is not a nation.

    An interesting, thought provoking article however.

    • You raise some valid points, Aberdeen Angus. I think the size of the respective national and UK parliaments would have to be in relation to the importance and complexity of their tasks, and to organisational efficiency; so the UK parliament might not be all that small and the overall number of national + UK MPs might be higher than it is now – but not by nearly as much as the opponents of an EP would have it.

      By the way, how you elect the UK parliament is an interesting question, and also what you do about a second chamber. As the UK parliament would be dealing with truly UK-wide questions, you could for instance base it entirely on a party-list system (i.e. not tied to geographic constituencies), with the share of seats being divided on a fully proportional basis reflecting the vote across the whole of the UK. E.g. if the SNP polled 20% in Scotland, this would equate to around 3.5% UK-wide, which in a 300-seat parliament would earn them around 11 seats. This would make for a parliament that had a truly UK-wide remit and was answerable to the whole of the UK. You could apply my idea of a UK parliament comprising representatives from each of the national parliaments to a second chamber: making this a body responsible for examining the implication of UK bills for each of the nations; similarly, the UK parliament could debate the UK-wide implications of legislation from the national parliaments and, if necessary, refer it for reconsideration if it was thought to be damaging to the UK as a whole or unconstitutional. (That ‘c’ word!)

      True, also, Northern Ireland isn’t strictly a nation, but the principle of devolution is still the same – if not its implications, as Hendre observes. One might also add the question of Cornwall, which many there regard as a nation. The ‘Cornish Question’ would need to be dealt with at the same time as the English Question. Maybe in a consultative referendum, the Cornish people could be asked some additional questions about whether they wanted a separate parliament or independence.

      AA, I don’t personally regard the UK as a nation like Italy or Germany. Those two nations have evolved from a large number of former feudal states and principalities, where there wasn’t previously a centralised state – unless you go as far back as Ancient Rome, that is. By contrast, France and Spain have evolved out of centralised states where one kingdom was dominant from a very early stage, and imposed its rule and national identity on the remainder of its present territory. These models have never applied to the UK, which as a political entity is by definition a union of x-number of nations that were well established as such – cohesive and centralised – before the union took place. You could say it was originally ‘three’ nations – England, Scotland and the whole of Ireland – Wales having been assimilated politically into England by the time of the Union with Scotland.

      So obviously, there is a question of the ‘nationhood’ of Wales, and its relationship and long-standing legal and constitutional ties with England, to be resolved, as Hendre says. I think, however, that most people in Wales today would consider Wales to be a nation; and I think if the majority of people living in a country regard themselves as forming a distinct nation, then that is what they must be accepted as being.

      I think Hendre also makes a valid point about the fact that the complete form of devolution I am advocating would have been very difficult to implement and hard for the political establishment to accept back in 1998. To some extent, we’re now articulating the wisdom of hindsight; but equally, our politicians are put in their positions of influence to exercise a degree of foresight. And, with a few notable exceptions, very few of them perceived the injustice and unsustainability of asymmetric devolution, and its potential to destroy the Union, at the time it was introduced.

  6. What you seem to be suggesting, Hendre, is that England should hold its hand because of Northern Ireland. But it probably slips your memory that NI was petitioned under a WELSH Prime Minister, Lloyd George. So, what you are saying is that it is OK for Wales to happily skip ahead, whilst England suffers the West Lothian question, health apartheid, the Barnett Formula, etc? That should England bear all the inconvenience of being “UK”, whilst your own country looks after its own interests, having more than slightly contributed to bringing the current situation about in Northern Ireland?

  7. Sorry, the above should read:

    What you seem to be suggesting, Hendre, is that England should hold its hand because of Northern Ireland. But it probably slips your memory that Ireland was partitioned under a WELSH Prime Minister, Lloyd George. So, what you are saying is that it is OK for Wales to happily skip ahead, whilst England suffers the West Lothian question, health apartheid, the Barnett Formula, etc? That England bear all the inconvenience of being “UK”, whilst your own country looks after its own interests, having more than slightly contributed to bringing the current situation about in Northern Ireland?

  8. Maria

    No, not really. I’m a Welsh devolutionist (unrepentant) and don’t hold any firm views on a future English settlement and even if I did they would be irrelevant. I’m describing the situation as it was back in 1997 when it would have been extremely difficult for various reasons to bring forward devolution at the same time in all four constituent parts. I raise the question of whether Welsh and Scottish devolution helped pave the way for the Good Friday agreement in 1998 indirectly. What recent events in Northern Ireland have shown is that while the situation remains fragile there appears to be no desire to go back to how things were pre-1997 so Northern Ireland as such is no impediment to the creation of an English Parliament.

    Re the old chestnut of Welsh nationhood as raised by Aberdeen Angus, we’ve recently been celebrating the centenary of the granting of Royal Charters to establish the National Library of Wales and the National Museum of Wales. Over a century ago Welsh nationhood was recognised by the British establishment at the highest level – that would be the very same British establishment who no doubt fervently believed in British nation statehood.

    Our history is littered with such anomalies and accommodations and I think it explains in part why the centre/London establishment could contemplate asymmetric devolution.

  9. Hendre, face facts – you’re anti-English! Wales needs independence, not devolution, with constant hand-outs from England to bolster its fake national pride. No country can be proud on hand-outs from another.

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