An English Parliament terrifies the British political and academic elite far more than the thought of Scottish separatism did

The Scottish independence referendum opened up a number of debates around both the future constitutional status of Scotland, but also of England, with improved and empowered local government, reforming the House of Commons, and regional devolution all being mentioned as potential routes forward. Here, Colin Copus argues that all of these fall short of what is required: an English Parliament and Government.

The Scottish separation referendum result provided the British political elites with a major headache – not the massive scramble to satisfy Scottish separatist instincts by promising more powers, money and freedom. Rather, what to do about England.  Four possible scenarios of what to do about England have presented themselves in the wake of the referendum:  three find favour with the political and academic establishment and one does not. Those that do are; regionalisation, devolution to English local government and tinkering with Parliament. The fourth – the creation of an English parliament – terrifies the British political and academic elite far more than Scottish separatism.

So, first, to deal with the siren voices demanding the Balkanisation of England which are becoming louder. Some call it regionalisation, but Balkanisation is more accurate and appropriate as the outcome, or even the intention behind this agenda, is to see  England broken into warring artificial pieces – North East this, South West that and thus avoid a collective all-of-England voice. There is no English Catalonia that the regionalists seem to crave or romanticise and the so-called English regions are not regions in the same way as, for example the Spanish or Italian regions. Moreover, all countries, including Scotland and Wales have their wealthier and less wealthy parts – but they also have their own parliaments, too.

Second, the solution to avoid an English parliament is to devolve to local government. This is something that is more worthy than regionalisation and something which can be achieved alongside an English Parliament. The question that remains though is – what, where, when and how much will be devolved to local government? The problem with the devolution agenda is that it will treat English local government as it always has done: a subordinate piece of the constitutional jigsaw and as something that to which is given, can and will be taken away – eventually. The fear is that devolution to local government will mean more of the same: more service responsibility and little money to deal with those responsibilities. It will not be based on a radical shift of primary legislative power away from the centre to English councils so that they can develop different legal frameworks to suit local needs or views.

The third option in response to the question ‘what to do about England’ is to tinker with the British Parliament and that is exactly what the suggestion of ‘English Votes on English Laws’ (EVoEL) amounts to: parliamentary tinkering. Quite apart from the problem of identifying what are English only matters the devastating flaw in this option is that it does not give England that which has been given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: a Parliament, First Minister and government of its own. Some have complained that it will lead to two classes of MP, but that is something that will worry only MPs; the public will not be concerned if there are 1 or 20 classes of MP. But of course there are already two classes of MP: the ones from Scotland who can vote on all matters and the ones from England who can’t; EVoEL may go some way to rectifying that situation, but the main flaw remains: 53 million (2011 census) in England have no all-England-voice or government.

So, the only solution to the English question is to give the 53 million people of England what the 5 million in Scotland, the 3 million in Wales and the almost 2 million people in Northern Ireland have – a Parliament, First Minister and government of their own to promote, pursue and protect the interests of England. There is no basis in democracy, practical politics and fairness as to why an English Parliament is not the solution. But why is it that so many of the same people who happily supported the creation of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved bodies, are so vehemently opposed granting to England the same privilege? Is it a misplaced Anglophobia – unfortunately much of it is, with crude generalisations underpinning the opposition to an English Parliament: England is nasty compared to Scotland and Wales; it must be punished for perceived past wrongs; it would vote the wrong way; it would mean too many new politicians; and, the most laughable and frankly offensive excuse: England it is just too big for a single parliament.

So, would an English Parliament mean too many new politicians? Well this certainly wasn’t an argument at the time of the creation of the Scottish and Welsh devolved chambers. Indeed, giving frustrated politicians that hadn’t secured a seat at Westminster an alternative route into a national parliament and a governing career was a positive bonus that these chambers opened up. But when it comes to England, more politicians is a problem. An English Parliament however, would enable a reduction in the number of British MPs and even a merging and slimming down of the Commons and Lords into a unicameral British-wide senate. So, fewer politicians would result – if that is really what should be an objective of any representative system of government.

Regionalists however, seem undeterred by the number of extra politicians that elected regional chambers would require. Using the same ratio of voters to electors as that used for the Scottish Parliament in the formation of regional elected chambers, would result in approximately an extra 1,200 elected politicians. That would be far more than would be required for an English Parliament. Another counter to the Balkanisers of England is the model adopted by Italy, which with a population of 60 million is not much bigger than England. Italy has a bicameral parliament with 20 regional chambers, all of which have real names that mean something to people and with which they can properly identify. There is no North West Italy region. So, elected regional chambers can work but only with a national parliament for England as the vital all-England voice.  After all devolution to Scotland and Wales was less about devolution and easing the work-load of Parliament and more about national recognition and that is what is despicably being denied to England.

England’s size is not a problem and other systems manage to accommodate large and small units of government: the US with California at 38 million and Wyoming with 583,000; or, Belgium with Flanders at 6 million, Wallonia at 3million and the Brussels region at 1 million, to name but two which manage to make the governing system work with size disparities.   It is not the size of England that is the problem. Rather, it is the desire of many to avoid England governing itself and to avoid granting it national recognition that is the problem. There is also no reason why an English Parliament would destroy the Union and those arguing such should just reflect on how their cherished Scottish parliament came so close to doing just that. A greater reason for ending the Union would be to continue to deny 83 % of the population the right to govern itself while a minority are allowed such privilege. Over time that anomaly will place more tension and pressure on the Union. But, if the only way for England to govern itself is to end the Union, than give England a referendum on separation – there is no reason why that privilege should go to Scotland alone?

John Bright, the great English Quaker radical in a speech in Birmingham in 1865 said: England is the mother of parliaments; it is long overdue that England was once again allowed that Parliament.

Note: this post originally appeared on the PSA Insight blog and is reposted with permission. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

colin-copusColin Copus is Professor of Local Politics and Director of the Local Governance Research Unit in the Department of Politics and Public Policy, De Montfort University. He tweets @ProfCopusLG.

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