There is one constitutional reform that should be top of the list, writes LORD FOULKES


Now that the Welsh assembly has had its powers enhanced we have three of the four nations of the United Kingdom with powers over most domestic matters controlled by devolved parliaments. In each case those domestic laws need only pass through one chamber to become law. The House of Lords has no say and in each country there is no demand for what, in Scotland, might be a ‘House of Lairds’.

Meanwhile domestic laws which apply only to England are voted on by Scottish, Welsh and Ulster MPs and have also to pass through the Lords, where we ethnic peers also vote on them. Understandably this has upset a few English MPs. Although many of them are Tories, some Labour members have also expressed concern. This is not surprising. Indeed it is astonishing the protests have not been louder and more widespread, The anomaly was foreseen by the former West Lothian MP Tam Dalyell who used it to argue against devolution, and has since been dubbed the ‘West Lothian Question’.

It is better described as a major democratic deficit in our constitution. English politicians and public have taken it so far with such equanimity for a few reasons. Many have previously seen England and the UK as interchangeable terms, real-term effects have been relatively minimal, and, above all, there has been no focus for opposition. That now looks like changing. With Scotland, for example having free prescriptions, free personal care for the elderly and free higher education provided, in the view of some English people, by English taxpayers, dissent is growing.

Apart from the peripheral Campaign for an English Parliament, with apologies to Gareth Young, and a few fringe groups, there has been little political support. Labour has been opposed to an English parliament because they believe it would have a permanent Tory majority.

This need not be so. We are already seeing the same electorate in Northern Ireland and Wales vote differently for devolved parliaments to how they do in UK elections, and this is now beginning to be apparent in Scotland. And, of course the outcome crucially depends on the electoral system which is adopted. This is an issue which will not go away. It will, instead, become a growing grievance.

There are three constitutional structures for the UK which are inherently stable. The centralised system which existed previously was stable but has now been overtaken by events. Of course, it would be possible for Scotland and Wales to become independent and Ireland to be unified, but this break-up of the UK is not favoured by the vast majority and would be economically disastrous.

The remaining stable option is federalism. It was once the favoured option of the Liberals and is the one I strongly support. At present we have an imperfect form of federalism. To make it stable we need to complete our process of phased federalism with the creation of an English parliament responsible in England for all those matters devolved to Holyrood in Scotland. The UK parliament which might then be able to become unicameral would remain responsible for foreign affairs, defence, the economy, employment and welfare, which remain common in all parts of the UK

The English and their politicians would then be able to better define and express Englishness, to celebrate St George’s Day, have dinners with readings from Wordsworth and to support both English and UK teams with enthusiasm and without apology.

The Rt. Hon. The Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (or “The Rt. Hon. The Lord Foulkes of Cumnock” to his friends) is a former Minister of State at the Scotland Office. He stepped down as Labour MSP for Lothians in 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @GeorgeFoulkes. This post originally appeared on George’s own website.

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23 thoughts on “An English Parliament in a federal UK

  1. Your Lairdship. You say “Meanwhile domestic laws which apply only to England are voted on by Scottish, Welsh and Ulster MPs ”

    As you know, Scottish SNP MPs only vote on ‘English Only’ matters when there is a consequential effect on Scotland. I know this is what you really meant to say, but best to be clear.

    1. That is because the SNP so choose, not because the constitution so demands

  2. Yes! Nice to see someone of Lord Foulkes standing calling for a federated UK. It works for Germany and many other countries. It allows us to remain a “large” country and continue to reap the benefits that go with it. Meanwhile local people get what they voted for. I would disagree that England needs just the one parliament. As we see all too often people in northern England don’t tend to want the same as those in the South.

  3. “but this break-up of the UK …. would be economically disastrous.”
    Again, on this site, an assertion of “fact” supported by no evidence. Just because you keep on saying it does not make it true

  4. Federalism is a good solution, but implementing it would surely be a very tricky undertaking. An English Parliament must really be the will of the English, not the Scots, for it to succeed. And the English seem very divided on that front. Nonetheless, I strongly support the idea of a federal UK.

  5. There may have been little political support for an English parliament but there’s been plenty of public support. There’s been little political support because Westminster politicians are a loathsome bunch of self-serving, anti-democratic party apparatchiks, determined to preserve their power base and the Union at all costs, even at the cost of democracy.

    Typically Westminster politicians put their own concerns ahead of the concerns of the public, particularly the English public. So even though the Hansard Audit into Political Engagement found that the West Lothian Question was by far the constitutional question that annoyed the greatest number of people in Britain, both the Labour and Coalition governments have ignored it in favour of offering more devolved powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, thereby increasing the democratic deficit in England, Instead of addressing the English Question they filled the Lords with the 850 cadavers, half-wits and gravy-trainers (even though, they say, an English parliament would be ‘too many politicians and too costly’). Instead of consulting the people of England they’ve conducted a referendum on AV that no one wanted. Instead of making the UK democratic they’ve fannyied around with proposals for fixed term parliaments and tightened the rules on expenses because they know that the people of Britain don’t trust them or the political system. They’ve even had the brass-neck to kick resolution of the West Lothian Question into the long-grass, after over ten-years of devolution, because they don’t know how to answer it.

    What have they been doing in those ten years? How can they not know the answer? The answer is to ask the people of England whether it’s an anomaly that they’re prepared to live with, or whether they would like to answer it by voting for their own English parliament. It’s so easy, so very easy. But they don’t do it because they are trying to preserve what they have, they are trying to preserve the absolute sovereignty of the imperial parliament and their own privilege within it; they are more worried about the threat of Scottish separatism than English democracy, therefore they can abuse England’s historical loyalty to Westminster government; they are worried that the people don’t see the benefits of Union – and they’re right to, because even the most ardent Unionist cannot say what type of Union it is that they are trying to preserve: a multinational union based on the principal of popular sovereignty and equal democratic and constitutional rights, or an imperial Union of asymmetric democracy in which its various peoples are forever in conflict with a reactionary unrepresentative centre?

    Personally I think federalism would work but I find it impossible to envisage a scenario by which the UK would evolve into a federal system. If you’re going to rip up the Acts of Union and divide sovereignty between Westminster and the four nations, then you may as well go for confederalism, a personal union, or ‘social union’ as Alex Salmond describes it. Federalism offers nothing that confederalism doesn’t, and has many drawbacks.

  6. A “confederal” solution is possible and attractive.
    A federal solution is unworkable unless Scotland is put on the same basis a Yorkshire or the West country which would be unaccptable to most Scots.
    A confederal solution is more readily achieved between independent states.
    The Nordic union in which several independent nations of differing size co-operate freely on matter of shared interest is a very good model.

  7. Personally I’m finding all the pontifications and assertions about an English parliament all a bit sterile.

    It is patently obvious that the English people would vote for an English parliament because they are the only people who have persistently been left out of the debate and decision-making about devolution. British politicians fearful of an English parliament making them, and therefore the UK, irrelevent have suppressed calls for a referendum on an English Parliament. They know the English would vote for one rught now.

    Charles Falconer told campaigners that the Union must preserved at all costs and went on to say on BBC Radio that there would never be an English parliament. The irony is if the English had been asked back in 1997 along with the rest of the UK, they would most likely have voted “no”. Calls for an English parliament then stood at about 9-16% in polls. Now polls regularly show 20-30% of English people wanting independence. Consistantly, 70%+ want only English MPs to vote on English matters and 60% want an English parliament.

    This wilful avoidance of English opinion has only been sustained for so long because the media connived with politicans to suppress and ridicule English home rule, unless it was to promote Labour’s (and Lib Dem’s and Tory’s) regional carve-up of England. This has always been the most unpopular option in England, but Labour nevertheless pushed it onwards.

    The Daily Politics supposedly discussed an English parliament recently. Unusually, there was about 30 seconds of one supporter making the case (usually there is no-one), while Billy Bragg spent several minutes yacking about regions and “the people of the south west would love their own parliament”.

    The time for sterile online discussion and fanciful assertions of the kind Brigg made must come to an end. The English must be asked in a referendum about an English parliament. This must be done in the same manner as previous referenda, that is, no fixing of the outcome by insisting on a minimum turn-out. Such a referendum must take place this year, or in 2012 when the Olympic Games on on. Why not, if we are all expected to hang around to the anniversary of Bannockburn and Commonwealth Games in 2014 for the Scottish independence referendum?

    It is irksome to hear politicians banging on about fairness, localism, democracy and “listening to the people”. Two words instantly make them revert to their self-serving avaricious type and those two words are “English Parliament”.

  8. Wouldn’t opting for a confederate state basically remove all power from Westminster, other than foreign policy?

  9. (Labour has been opposed to an English parliament because they believe it would have a permanent Tory majority.)

    By opposing an english parliament and the way they ignored anything english they ensured my vote went to the tories after voting labour for thirty years, just to get them out of office.

    1. Ah, the Tories, a party whose leader described us English as ‘sour little Englanders’ a few years ago. When all is said and done, the three mainstream parties are united in their Anglophobia.

      It’s ironic that Labour feel that an English parliament would be more or less permanently governed by the Conservatives, because Labour has tended to gain the highest number, if not outright majority, of votes cast in England at general elections. The Thatcher/Major years were a blip, albeit a significant one. If there were to be an English parliament, and it were to use the same voting system as Holyrood, Labour would have a significant share of power.

      If I were Ed Miliband, I’d be telling my Shadow Cabinet colleagues that an English parliament (or at least a legally binding commitment to hold a referendum in England) should be official Labour policy, and that those opposed to such a common sense and morally right policy are free to leave. The Labour party has nothing to fear but fear (of the English people) itself, and a lot potentially to gain.

      1. From the Celtic Fringe, the London parties all appear to us be unhealthily Anglophile, rather than phobic.

        I do, as a Welsh Nationalist, think that without an English Parliament, the union i doomed, so you will end up with an English only Westminster.

  10. In a federal system, like Canada or the USA, sovereignty lies with the federal parliament but the federal units (states for USA or provinces for Canada) have certain sovereign rights and powers that the written constitution sets down as theirs. The problem for Britain in setting up a federal constitution is that all sovereignty is exercised by the Crown in Parliament at Westminster, and powers (but not sovereignty) are devolved – which means that Westminster can in theory overturn absolutely any decisions that devolved institutions take. That has always been Britain’s system of government, and before that England’s system of government – Parliament exercises sovereignty through the Crown.

    A confederation is a union of sovereign nations that pool sovereignty and cooperate on certain matters – they might have the same monarch, the same armed forces and the same currency, or they might not. Seems to me that if we’re going to rip up the Acts of Union, then there’s little point trying to shoe-horn everyone back into a federal settlement if a confederal settlement allows for greater flexibility and preserves Britain on a basis that is acceptable to all, or all but the most ardent separatists. A confederal system would allow us to cooperate on matters of mutual interest but allow for divergence in other matters – it also means that each unit would be able to have its own constitution without the need for creating an over-arching codified (written) constitution that ties us down to a particular form of Union; which means that England, for example, would be able to keep an uncodified common law constitution if it so wanted, and Scotland could go for a codified constitution in keeping with its tradition of popular sovereignty. The Canadian federal system is often spoken of as a confederation because it enshrines the principal of self-determination, we already have a precedent for this in the UK in the shape of Northern Ireland.

    I realise that this looser, confederal, Union is completely unappealing to the British nationalists in the Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties, but if they believe that there is a British national identity, a common British purpose and culture, then they should believe that a looser Union will work because the British people will want it to work and will have a political, cultural/familial, and possibly economic, imperative for doing so.

    To form a federation we would have to come up with a written constitution (no small task) that divided sovereignty between the UK Parliament and the national parliaments of England, Scotland, Wales and NI. This would involve ripping up the Act of Union, whose main clause states that all the people of Britain should be governed by one and the same parliament (which technically we are at the moment because Westminster remains sovereign), and renegotiating a settlement that was acceptable to each of the nations of the UK, and worked as an overall system of union government. Again, no small task. I can’t see it happening myself.

    Though I’d be interested to read Lord Foulkes roadmap to a federal Britain.

    1. If people want to move towards a federal solution or a confederal solution they should be calling for the inclusion of a third option in the independence referendum. This, if it were carried, would bring about pressure to move to a federal solution. I think this is the only realistic way forward and is an unprecedented opportunity. I can’t see any alternative route to federalism coming out of Westminster

  11. Re: As you know, Scottish SNP MPs only vote on ‘English Only’ matters when there is a consequential effect on Scotland. I know this is what you really meant to say, but best to be clear.

    But they have the option and the ‘right’ to vote on matters solely affecting England!, this must be removed, no MP elected in the Scottish, Welsh or N Irish EU Regions of the “UK” should have any say over English affairs ever again, it is time for an English Parliament and Government!.

    1. As long as the Barnett formula is in place and funding recieved by the Scottish govt is directly dependant on the amount spent on English public services then Scottish MP’s have a right & a duty to continue voting on English matters.

      1. I agree that Scottish MPs have an obligation to vote on something which will have a knock-on effect on Scottish funding through the Barnett Formula.

        Which makes it all the more strange that the Coalition intends – at some point in the distant future – to stage a Commission on the West Lothian Question with the Barnett Formula still in place.

        Mark Harper, the minister in charge, takes a contrary view. Harper reckons that non-English MPs could be banned from voting on English legislation with the Barnett Formula still in place:

        There is no link between the Barnett Formula and the West Lothian question. The Barnett Formula is the method by which the Treasury allocates funds to the Devolved Administrations and full details of the formula are set out in the Treasury publication Funding the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly: Statement of Funding Policy. The Statement of Funding Policy is available on the Treasury website: http://cdn.hm-treasury.gov.uk/sr2010_fundingpolicy.pdf

        The Formula is not reliant upon the legislative process of the Westminster Parliament; many spending allocations are made well in advance of the necessary legislative powers being taken by Parliament. A good example is that in the last Spending Review, the government allocated funds for the high speed rail link to the north even though many of the legislative aspects were yet to be considered by Parliament.

        In which case there is no democratic or moral justification for Scottish MPs to vote on English legislation.

        1. As it stands there is no way that Celtic MPs should not have a say on “English-only” matters. As it stands there is no English only matters. England is so large in comparison that legislative changes that incur a decrease/increase in funding will clearly have a ramification in the rest of these Isles. The Barnett formula delivers an incremental population-linked increase based on the budgetary needs of England as someone that is interested in the subject will well know.
          As the biggest Unionist known to man, Lord Trimble, said each “english” decision has at the very least a financial direct/tangible consequence in Scotland, Wales and NI. And that’s only the tangible consequences, who knows what other consequences could come forth (one example being foreign investment). To say that MPs on these areas shouldn’t have a say whilst this is the case is purely nonsensical and completely undemocratic in the extreme. It’s not pretty in that understandably Scots MPs shouldn’t be changing the lives of English constituents but it is of paramount importance if it triggers hugely influential changes in the budget of the Scots Parliament for example.
          One Tory telling tales about one or two individual cases does not constitute a basis for the argument in the same way that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Why do you think it’s been kicked into the long grass? Because under the present financial arrangements it’s simply not viable to look at the WLQ.
          What should happen is that the finances should be worked out in a different manner to stop this happening. The problem is there is no really good alternative other than full fiscal autonomy which is independence in all but name but nobody wants to touch it with a barge pole for political reasons.

  12. Good, so if we are going to have federalism for territories of such different sizes as Wales and England then there will be plenty of room for places like Cornwall to apply for federal status.

    If the English want a parliament then they should have it but such body would do little for Cornwall – yet more centralism serving the need of an English elite rather than those of our Cornish culture and economy.

    We’ve asked for devolution (see petition of 50,000 signatures gathered in 2002) now gives us the referendum: http://www.cornishassembly.org/

  13. I feel that I should point out that an English Parliament wouldn’t be the constitutional silver bullet that its being made out to be.
    Firstly, as someone who is originally from Manchester, I would argue that whereas devolution in Scotland has been very sucessful, an English Parliament wouldn’t be able to deliver devolution in any meaningful way – devolving power from a country of 65 million to a country of 56 million is just as centralized and would achieve nothing that could be done by a UK parliament, after all surely it would be easier to change how barnet consequentials affect legislation so that we can designate certainn bills as completely English-only.

    However, there is still a UK wide problem. At the beginning of 2009 in the US the four largest states (CA, TX, FL, NY) all had Republican Governors but there was a Democrat in the White House. The reason this caused no problem was that these states together still don’t make up a majority of the Union. On the other hand, England has roughly 85% of the UK population: if we ever had a situation where, for example, Labour were the English Government and Conservatives were the UK government there would be problems for the whole UK. If the English elections were more recent, the English FM might claim to be more legitimate, they might each use their respective powers to antagonize the other government (think Ken Livingstone against Thatcher in the 80s, only using policies and legislation rather than billboards), and it could easily lead to a situation similar to the US budget stand-offs.

    I’m not disaggreeing that the current arrangement has problems, but if a proposed solution has potentially bigger problems, then we should probably think twice…

  14. I know we fear any break up of the union as a high riisk issue in that we may never have a Labour government in London. However we must balance the policy correctly in retaining a federal solution we attain a balanced socialist government.

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