When Britain woke up to the ‘No’ vote last Friday, there was one thing all the political commentators agreed upon. We wouldn’t be going back to business as usual. The status quo had been smashed. This seemed to be affirmed when, early that morning, David Cameron made a statement suggesting that the so-called ‘vow’ of more powers to Scotland would be matched by a programme of devolution to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, on a similar timescale.
However in subsequent days, this has been cast into some doubt, as the Conservatives and Labour seem at loggerheads over the question of English devolution. This issue cannot be seen in isolation from the Scottish referendum, yet both sides are guilty of doing just that. Or, perhaps more likely, are drawing the wrong conclusions from the lessons of the referendum.
The historically high-turnout of over 85% across Scotland showed that engagement with politics is possible. Whilst some have said that people came to the polls to bring about change, this is patently untrue given that the majority of them voted ‘No’. Everyone however is keen to stress that the size of the ‘Yes’ vote highlights people’s dissatisfaction with the political elite and the Westminster system. This is something not exclusive to the referendum, having been cited nationwide for some time, but has been drawn into sharp focus by the hard-fought campaign. But, if dissatisfaction with Westminster is the lesson of the referendum, the political elite are resolutely failing to learn from it and have instead drawn their own conclusions.
The ‘vow’ to Scotland will almost certainly be delivered before the next election in eight months’ time, given that Downing Street has conceded that these powers will come through even if the English question is not solved. If this is the case, a rebellion of Tory backbenchers is a possibility, but would be largely irrelevant given the fact that Labour will surely vote with the government. The English question is the one over which the political battle will be fought in the coming months.
The ‘West Lothian Question’, now being referred to as ‘English votes for English laws’, is a battle in which the first shots have already been fired. It is the one concrete policy that Cameron has tentatively committed to and it was in the 2010 Tory manifesto. Ed Miliband has now come out against creating what he calls a ‘two-tier’ parliament. Here is wrong conclusion number one; Miliband is essentially playing party politics, refusing to back what is surely the most logical and easily deliverable of the various plans for constitutional reform. He has left his party very vulnerable at a time when constitutional reform is suddenly something on the radar of the ordinary voter.
The same Tory backbenchers who are demanding English votes for English laws have also been telling every media outlet that will listen about their desire to see an English parliament. They have argued for the same powers being given to Scotland to be handed over to a new English executive, led by a First Minister for England, and to be held accountable by an English parliament. This parliament would be the same as the Westminster parliament, with the same MPs, minus those from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Whilst this plan may sound simple enough, it is in fact littered with crucial flaws, perhaps explaining why David Cameron has shied away from offering any such thing. For a start, they are seeing the Scottish referendum as a purely constitutional issue and are either unaware or wilfully ignoring the issue of distrust of the Westminster establishment. A new parliament at Westminster, a new executive in Westminster and more powers to the existing English Westminster MPs is the answer to a question nobody is asking. Other than Tory backbenchers is seems.
For starters, England is too big to devolve powers to. Scotland has a population of five million people, Wales three million, Northern Ireland just under two million. England on the other hand has around 53 million people. If the point of devolution is to take into account regional variations and give power to local administrations better able to meet local needs, it is clear that England is simply too big for this to work. An English government in London would hardly be any more responsive to the needs of the North-East for instance than the existing Westminster one, and if the same Westminster MPs are sitting in the English parliament, how is any more power being handed to the English people?
And on the issue of the Westminster parliament, what would become of the British government if an English executive with all the powers Scotland has were to be created. What exactly would the department of Health or Education do if these matters were devolved to new English departments? In fact, the UK government departments are in many cases already English departments, and this will be even truer if and when new powers are delivered to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. General elections will become almost irrelevant, the Prime Minister merely in charge of the UK’s defence and foreign affairs and very little else. This is clearly not a workable solution.
Given that an English parliament and executive would be quite possibly both constitutionally unworkable and provide no benefit in terms of delivering greater power to the people, some have called for devolution to English regions or cities. Other commentators have been quick to point out the lack of appetite for this. They point to the rejection of elected mayors across many English cities in 2012 and the resounding ‘No’ vote in the 2004 referendum on a North-East Assembly. But this argument is deeply flawed. For one, the lessons of the Scottish referendum are again not being learnt. People came out to vote in their masses when they thought their vote would make a difference to their lives, whether they thought independence would be a good or bad thing, people felt their vote mattered. If regional bodies had real power and perhaps a system of proportional representation was used, voters could once again feel that empowerment.
Secondly, we are in a very different situation to 2004 when regional devolution was offered to the North-East. At that time, the economy was at its peak but, also, dissatisfaction and distrust of Westminster was far lower. Since then, the establishment has been tarnished by a multitude of scandals and crises; MPs’ expenses, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan turning sour, the economic crash, phone-hacking (the press is part of the establishment too), tuition fees and austerity. People are fed up in a way they weren’t in 2004 and blame politicians. A not insignificant point is also that Labour was in power in 2004, and the North-East is Labour’s stronghold of strongholds (even in 2010, Labour won 25 of 29 seats in the North-East), hence the region was less likely to be dissatisfied with central government when it was a government they’d voted for.
The referendum on elected mayors did take place post-Westminster being discredited. But the key point here is that it wasn’t a referendum on devolution. No new powers were on offer, the question was in fact:
“How would you like your city to be run?
By a leader who is an elected councillor chosen by a vote of the other elected councillors. This is how the council is run now.
By a mayor who is elected by voters. This would be a change from how the council is run now.”
Clearly then, this was a vote not against devolution but in favour of collective leadership. It could also be suggested that the low turnout, rather than suggesting a lack of enthusiasm for devolution, represented a lack of interest in the technicalities of Council leadership.
If a better solution to the English question would be regional devolution, we find ourselves faced with many more questions. Which powers should be devolved? Should there be new elected regional assemblies or should existing local authorities be awarded the powers? How would England be divided up? The Scottish question took two years of bitter public debate to be resolved, Cameron is foolish to link the English question to the Scottish ‘vow’ and rush something through.
Equally, Miliband has not gone far enough in promising a constitutional convention after the next election. He needs to set out what Labour wants from the convention, what their proposals are for England before his promise has any credibility. The Catch 22 is that although this cannot be rushed, the issue is now in the public spotlight – creating a vacuum which is being filled by a few backbench Tory MPs. Cameron, Miliband and indeed Clegg need to set out far more clearly their answers to the English question. The problem is, they don’t seem to have come up with any yet.
By Alex Clifford