The problems created by devolution are tiny compared with those it solved, says TOM HARRIS
Let’s start with some trivia. It was indeed Tam Dalyell who first asked the question that so vexes today’s English nationalists: in a post-devolution House of Commons, why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on English issues when neither they nor their English counterparts can vote on the same issues as they affect Scotland? But it was Enoch Powell who gave the question its name: the West Lothian Question.
Less trivial are the consequences that devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could have for the Union that makes our four nations one. No political Union can survive when its largest participant is terminally unhappy with the arrangement.
But is it? More to the point, does England have a legitimate grievance against the new constitutional set-up?
Before English nationalists reach for the lever marked “English parliament”, it’s worth remembering why there was such a demand for devolution in Scotland – and, to a lesser extent, Wales – in the first place. Historically, Scotland sent 72 MPs to Westminster (it’s now 59 and will drop to about 52 at the next election). Even in the extremely unlikely event that all of them would be united on any one controversial policy issue, they could be easily outvoted by even a fraction of the massed ranks of England’s 530-odd MPs.
Before devolution Scotland was powerless to prevent itself being used as a pilot ground for the poll tax. Even with 100 per cent opposition from our parliamentarians, the policy would have remained completely unaffected. This was a regular and inevitable consequence of a unitary state and a single parliament dominated by a large nation. England would never tolerate being placed in such an emasculated position, and neither should it. Nor will it ever be forced to.
Yes, since 1999 there have been occasions when a (small) majority of English MPs have been frustrated by the combined votes of a (large) minority of English MPs in conjunction with MPs from the other, smaller, nations. And yes, if every Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish MP wished to foist an unpopular policy on England alone – and, crucially, were joined in the lobbies by at least 209 English MPs – then they might succeed against the wishes of the remaining 324.
But England, unlike any of the three smaller nations before 1999, could never be put in a position when its will was subjugated by other nations. That is as much a matter of arithmetic as of democracy.
Moreover, a devolved Scotland still cannot always get its own way on matters reserved to Westminster – nor should it. If all our 59 MPs were united against the renewal of Trident, or opposed to a foreign military engagement, or opposed to a particular tax change, then our voice would count for little when added to the other 591 MPs from the rest of the United Kingdom. England will never have to face that kind of reality under any constitutional arrangement, including the existing one.
Devolved Britain is an uneven and untidy solution to a political problem. As an American friend once put it to me: “The British constitution is all very well in practice, but it would never work in theory.”
The question we need to ask is not the West Lothian one but: has devolution created a more serious problem than the one it set out to fix?
The answer to that is no.
Allowing MPs from every part of the UK to vote on any issue before the Commons seems unfair to many. But it is more tolerable than banning them from doing so. That particular “solution” fits easily into a tabloid headline but doesn’t stand any level of scrutiny. A two-tier Commons could quite easily result in two executives, each with their own majority, remit and Prime Minister. Utterly unworkable, and its advocates must recognise this.
If my presence – and that of my compatriots – in the Commons during debates and votes on devolved issues affecting England is such an abomination, then surely the only solution short of the break up on the Union would be an English Parliament?
Whenever I’m asked about such a development, I’m careful to answer that such a move must be made exclusively by the English people themselves. That’s not a debate in which I would want to become embroiled. But, as we (sometimes) say in Scotland, ca’ canny: be very careful. The Scottish Parliament was an inevitable solution to a grievous injustice. An English Parliament might be seen as an unnecessary luxury, a disproportionate answer to a situation which is sometimes a bit annoying.
Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow South and a former transport minister He used to blog a lot. This is a cross-posting for the Campaign for an English Parliament website. Follow Tom on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.
20 thoughts on “The sledgehammer and the nut”
Yes we English do have a grievance and yes we do want an English Parliament.
Firstly, how many referenda have the Scots and Welsh had on their devolved chambers? 1979, and 1997 for two, and the Welsh have just had their third this year. We are still waiting for our first as the English nation.
Secondly, governance is all about attitude, and to a man and woman every MP’s attitude in Westminster is anti-English, not only anti-England. So, with that attitude it does not matter whether we have 500 MPs in English consituencies or 5,000, apart from the fact that the problem for England would be 10x worse with 5,000.
You and every other MP in Scotland are redundant in Scotland. You can only vote on English matters. An English Parliament would make you all pointless in England too. In fact an English Parliament would make every British MP pointless, which is the only reason you and the rest oppose one. Your opposition and theirs has nothing to do with preserving the Union, but everything to do with preserving your job/s.
The fact you even query whether we in England have a grievance exposes exactly why you should not be making decisions affecting the English people.
You bagpiping the “poll tax lament” changes nothing. Scottish politicians asked for it to be introduced in Scotland to stave off a feared hike in Scotland’s rates, assessed a year earlier than in England. So far from being piloted in Scotland it was Scottish politicians who caused it to be rushed in and botched up.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter what you and other MPs want it is what English people want. This year 63% of the 35% of Welsh voters who turned out for their referendum voted for increased powers. In other words 22% of the total Welsh electorate voted for increased powers and got them.
At least 20 reputable polls show an average of 63% of English people want an English parliament. 72%+ want at least English MPs only to vote on English Laws. If a referendum was conducted in an identical manner to the Welsh referendum this year, we English would certainly have our own parliament.
What don’t you understand about democracy? You obviously understand nothing about fairness which is why cancer patients in England are denied over a dozen cancer drugs freely available to patients resident in Scotland on the Scottish Health Service, subsidised by patients dying in England denied those self-same drugs. Also, only students from England, out of the whole EU, are going to pay full tuition fees when studying in Scotland.
The whole UK should have a referendum on independence from the UK for each country comprising the UK. I know most English people would opt for independence now.
“Moreover, a devolved Scotland still cannot always get its own way on matters reserved to Westminster – nor should it. If all our 59 MPs were united against the renewal of Trident, or opposed to a foreign military engagement, or opposed to a particular tax change, then our voice would count for little when added to the other 591 MPs from the rest of the United Kingdom. England will never have to face that kind of reality under any constitutional arrangement, including the existing one.”
Thank you for a clear example of why Scotland needs independence. Even if 100% of our elected representatives support a position, it can be overruled by representatives of another country.
An English Parliament is the inevitable response to the anti-democratic asymmetry that Labour created. It’s an entirely proportionate response that deals not only with the West Lothian Question, but also with the flowering of English national identity and the decline of Britishness.
What Tom fails to mention is the small fact that devolution to Scotland was done on the basis of Scottish nationhood – it wasn’t devolution to an arbitrary area that happened not to vote Tory. It was devolution to the ancient nation of Scotland, a ‘reconvening of the Scottish parliament’. So it’s not just the presence of anti-democratic meddlers like Tom Harris that we object to (the so-called West Lothian Question) it’s the lack of an English voice: an English parliament, first minister and government that can represent us as English (as opposed to British) people. The Scottish parliament represents the people as Scots. We English are entitled to the same recognition of our English national identity. An answer to the West Lothian Question, which is what Tom focuses upon, is just a bonus, it’s not the main justification for an English parliament.
There is one thing you overlook, Tom, when you say that England could never be ‘subjugated’ by the smaller nations in the Union. The previous Labour governments made a determined attempt to phase out England altogether, while seeming to make the UK a lot ‘tidier’, by setting up elected regional assemblies without allowing England any national form of political representation. In this, English Labour MPs were joined by those in Scotland and Wales. It was this that made the likes of me into an English nationalist – anyone with any patriotic feeling would have felt the same. Although this ‘cunning plan’ was emphatically rejected by the people of the North East in 2004, the people of England have never been asked what form of governance they wish to have. Surely they should be asked? And subsequently, in his short term as PM, the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (or is it the other way round?) attempted to revive regionalism in England through regional committees of MPs, a scheme which won no support at all from the people of England. How can we trust the British government to look after the interests of the people of England? England like Scotland needs what Tony Blair called a ‘focus for the nation’. Like the Scots, Welsh and N Irish, the English also need to be able to defend their interests against the British government. And ‘devolution’ will not have ‘solved the problems’ if Mr Salmond has his way.
“The question we need to ask is not the West Lothian one but: has devolution created a more serious problem than the one it set out to fix?”
Wasn’t devolution going to “kill nationalism stone dead”? No one could now seriously argue that it did that.
Off course, from the point of view of a Scot it didn’t cause a more serious problem that the one it set out to fix. From an English perspective it did though, and that problem is set to increase as the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly acquire more power, something which will not stop with the legislation now in train – “devolution is a process, not an event”.
So yes, I am going to pull the lever marked “English Parliament”. I would once have settled for English votes on English Laws, but not any more. The intransigence of the Scots and the Labour Party in their determination to hold on to the undemocratic right of (mostly Labour) Scots MPs to vote on decisions which do affect the English, but not their constituents, has convinced me that the English need the full works, including the ability to exclude MPs from non-English constituencies from departments of state like Health, which now only have a remit in England.
If demand for English votes on English laws or an English Parliament leads to an end to the United Kingdom them so be it. In is present constitutional form the Union is, for the English, unworthy of preservation.
For the record, if I am an English nationalist, asymmetric devolution has made me one.
I am a Scottish Nationalist, an asymmetric United Kingdom has made me one.
You say of the former UK“Even in the extremely unlikely event that all of them would be united on any one controversial policy issue, they could be easily outvoted by even a fraction of the massed ranks of England’s 530-odd MPs” – well obviously, because it was a unitary state! As far as the state was concerned, there was no ‘England’ or ‘Scotland’ etc, and all MPs were elected to the UK parliament and their remit was to the UK. Therefore there was no issue of ‘England’s’ MPs outvoting any other country’s MPs, because there were no separate countries. To talk in this way makes no more sense than saying Basingstoke’s MPs can be outvoted.
Now, of course, instead of one state, there are four countries, three of which have their own national assemblies which control policy to varying degrees in their own countries, with the fourth country being controlled by a government to which it has no mandate. The British government, and the British parliament, has no remit to represent that fourth country, but neither does that fourth country have any of its own elected representatives in a national forum to speak for it and represent its interests. Consequently, since 1999, policy for that fourth country has been imposed (remember tuition fees and foundation hospitals?) by the casting vote of individuals for whom no one in that country voted, who voted solely in their political party’s interests to prop up the British government. Tellingly, those individuals who voted for those laws would not themselves be subject to them. England therefore has, contrary to your assertion, been subjugated by other nations.
MPs voting on issues for which no one elected them is outrageous, and banning them from doing so would be just and right. We have a two-tier Commons. On devolved matters there are two classes of MP: Representative MPs and Non-Representative MPs. Non-Representatives MPs are individuals who represent no constituencies in England yet vote on English business.
As to your suggestion that the move for an English Parliament must be made by the English people themselves, how on earth do you suggest we do this when the British government not only sets its face against it, but the British prime minister has referred to any English who want a parliament equivalent to the Scottish Parliament as “sour Little Englanders” even though he never called those who wanted a Scottish Parliament ‘sour Little Scotlanders’.
An English Parliament is the inevitable solution to a far more grievous injustice than was ever suffered by Scotland!
“As to your suggestion that the move for an English Parliament must be made by the English people themselves, how on earth do you suggest we do this when the British government not only sets its face against it, but the British prime minister has referred to any English who want a parliament equivalent to the Scottish Parliament as “sour Little Englanders” even though he never called those who wanted a Scottish Parliament ‘sour Little Scotlanders’.”
There has been much worse name calling than that over the years. It is not as though Scotland was handed devolution overnight or at the first time of asking. It is the result of years of campaigning (since at least 1886 and the formation of the Home Rule Association). Overcoming obstacle after obstacle even as far as the twisted referendum of 1979, and pulling public opinion every inch of the way by generation after generation of dedicated Scottish men and women. If you are waiting for someone to do it for you then it isn’t about to happen- although you may well benefit as a by-product of events unfolding in Scotland. In reality it is down to your countrywomen and men and their willingness to stand up and be counted. Good luck.
Stephen Gash, Toque, Ian Campbell, James Matthews and I Marcher all make the case far better than I could so suffice it to say that as an Englishman I identify with all of them and resent silly articles written by someone who knows nothing about how true English men and women feel.
I second Len Welsh’s remarks and indeed all the English people who have answered Tom Harris,
A Parliament for England!
It seems to me that England’s solution and Scotland’s solution are one and the same. Scotland leaves the union and has its own parliament with national powers and Westminster becomes the English parliament with all the national powers that meet the desire of the English people. If both parliaments wish to negotiate joint provision of services to save funds or improve results, then they would be empowered to do so.
A word of warning to the previous posters, beware the accusations that soon will come against English cybernats.
I agree with your statement. Constitutional issues are hot potatoes in the political sphere. I suggest it is so because our elected representatives are amatures when it come to constitutional issues and debate. Why? I proffer my opinion that Westminster is the “mother of all elected dictatorships” and when you operate in this atmosphere long enough then you become part of the “establishment”. I am sure Tom will have wry smile at that statement!
You solution of Scotland leaving and then freely discussing joint issues and their possible benefits is the best of both worlds. Tom, and Labour need to realise Scotland may decide to have a number of treaties with other Nations. In this context, I think this is where Labour in Scotland can rightly be tarred with the “politically parochial” brush.
I do hope that those writing here in support of an English Partliament have fully grasped the following:
The Labour Party are opposed to England having its own parliament while the SNP are not (and believe it to be a matter for the people of England to decide upon themselves).
England, N’Ireland, Scotland and Wales should all be independent with their own parliaments. They should all go their separate ways. There would be no need for a British Parliament. Britain and the British are past their shelf life and use by date and should be disbanded forthwith. Lets be rid of these British control freaks now. If all these countries were independent. It would be one way out of the stinking European Soviet Union.
Hi Tom, I see you’re marking out your territory on Scottish only websites. Very forward looking of you.
The problem with an English Parliament is that Westminster would become almost irrelevant as the UK Parliament. A federal structure is not right for Britain.
‘it’s worth remembering why there was such a demand for devolution in Scotland’
Was there ‘such a demand’? To some extent, possibly. But to the best of my recollection devolution was largely a preoccupation amongst the McChattering classes – media people and politicians. For Labour, as it has turned out, Devolution was a d-i-y stopgap measure to impede the progress of the SNP. I don’t think it was ever a priority with the grass roots in the way that jobs, housing and pensions were.
There were no outbreaks of communal grief in 1979 when the ‘Yes’ campaign foundered. Even in 1999 when the referendum gave devolution the thumbs-up that victory owed more to Labour’s enduring popularity after 1997 than to any pro-devolution groundswell. Not until the very recent past has the Scottish Parliament impinged on the national consciousness and, even now, many voters have a very blurred, imprecise grasp of this settlement.
Many people in England do not realise they do not have focused representation. Every regional area has a voice now – the English do not.
Is this fair?
“were joined in the lobbies by at least 209 English MPs – then they might succeed against the wishes of the remaining 324”
In your research has the above position ever been achived since 1707?
“Yes we English do have a grievance and yes we do want an English Parliament”
Of course this should have read “we nationalists”
I always love the way some people (usually those trying to build up a minority position) feel they can speak for a large group – “The English”, “The country” or “decent people” being the most common.
You dont speak for this Englishman…so stop pretending that you do.
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