Calman Report: Constitutional reform on a plate

The eagerness of the main unionist parties to seize on the Calman Commission’s report on Scottish devolution, published on Monday, suggests how little they are interested in factoring the English Question into their constitutional-renewal programmes. The report offers nothing for England: it deliberately avoids addressing the West Lothian Question; it urges that the Barnett Formula should be retained until a more equitable system for distributing the UK’s tax revenues based on real need can be determined; and it does not discuss the broader English Question – the issue of how England as a nation should be governed now that most of the Westminster government’s responsibilities relate to England alone.

The report does, however, acknowledge that this is an issue that needs to be resolved:

“Devolution to Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) created political institutions that exercise many of the powers of central Government for a significant proportion of the UK. That inevitably has meant that the governance of the rest of the UK [England to you and me] cannot continue unchanged.

“It is not sufficient for Scots (or indeed Welsh or Northern Ireland citizens) to dismiss this as simply a problem for the English: the internal arrangements of the Union are a matter for all of us. The UK now has a territorial constitution, and it needs, in our view, to be more fully and clearly set out.”

Indeed. But as the constitutional-reform agendas of none of the three main parties, as set out last week, contain any reference to remedying the post-devolution anomalies in the way England is governed (i.e. the said WLQ and the absence of proper democratic accountability to the English people), or indeed make any reference to England at all even when talking about it, what hope is there that they will pay attention to this recommendation in their haste to be seen to be doing something – anything – to deliver constitutional reform?

Clearly, Calman is a safe reform, handed to them on a plate by a Commission that’s been at work on it for a year or so. It’s safe because it doesn’t put into question the fundamental assumptions of UK governance and the structure of the UK itself: UK-parliamentary sovereignty and the supposed right of the UK parliament – including members elected outside of England – to make laws and decisions affecting England alone.

In short, Calman perpetuates asymmetric devolution, indeed entrenches it still further, with greater powers for the Scottish Parliament to set the level of taxation and public expenditure in Scotland, while the power of Scottish Westminster MPs to vote through relatively lower per-capita spending for England remains unchallenged.

The commitment of the parties and of Parliament to deliver meaningful constitutional reform for England, and not just perpetuate a discriminatory, asymmetric Union, will be measured by the extent to which they are prepared to engage with these questions of democratic accountability and be honest about the English downside to Scottish devolution.

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