The English question: where does England fit into the British devolution settlement?

Beyond Brexit, reconfiguring the relationship between Britain’s four constituent nations should be a top priority for Theresa May. Early statements from Downing Street seemingly offer hope for a closer focus on constitutional affairs. The Prime Minister has already spoken of her love for the “special union”, and lauded the “precious bond [uniting] England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. However, such positive unionist rhetoric must also appreciate the current lop-sided nature of the bond. The latter three nations all possess devolved legislatures. That does not necessarily entail an English Parliament, though. Before any action is taken towards giving England a uniquely English means of expressing its political preferences, there should be a constitutional convention to decide how exactly English citizens want these expressed.

Therefore, the key to getting English devolution ‘right’ is finding out the way in which England wants its voice represented within the framework of the United Kingdom. The debate is two-pronged, split between advocates of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL for short), and those who argue for a federalist solution. Proponents of the former contend it provides an easy, not to mention coherent answer to the ‘West Lothian Question’. EVEL would simply seeing MPs in English constituencies double-jobbing on legislation, thus avoiding the problem of an additional layer of government. On the other hand, retort federalists, EVEL is little more than a populist quick fix, which could create a tranche of ‘second-class’ MPs, whose voting rights in Westminster are restricted by dint of their constituency’s location.

The problem facing policy-makers is that no-one is certain of what England wants. Historically at least, it would not be unfair to describe the English as wary of decentralisation. This was a strand of public and political thought which ran through opposition to Home Rule in the early twentieth-century, and surfaced regularly again any time the prospect of devolution was mooted. In 2004, voters in the North of England rejected regional assemblies by a comprehensive 78-32 margin. More recently, however, polling shows that the perceived (and actual) asymmetry of devolution has become more salient as an issue – thanks in part to events like the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Thus, the message which emerges is mixed. English citizens are aware that the current devolution settlement creates a democratic vacuum concerning the voicing of their political views, yet there is no consensus about how to overcome this.

The best method of arriving at a decision regarding the ‘how’ aspect outlined above is via a constitutional convention. This is politically clever, since it would help towards dispelling the contemporary impression of devolution (and political processes in general) as something decided purely by staid politicians and their bureaucratic apparatchiks. Such a constitutional convention therefore needs to encompass as wide a cross-section of English society as possible.

While this all, by and large, avoids speaking in certainties, one thing is clear: there exists a growing demand for giving England its ‘own’ political voice. Perhaps this could be viewed as a cultural phenomenon too. Maybe this is suggestive of the public desire for English political parties to acknowledge the salience of ‘Englishness’ – in a vein similar to how the SNP and Plaid Cymru play on the idea that devolution is a means by which national identity can be expressed. Such discourse leads to the conclusion that, vis-à-vis devolution, it is not unreasonable to argue that England should get what it wants.

The nature of ‘what’, however, is still indiscernible. Your move, Theresa.

4 COMMENTS

  1. One of the things that bothered me at the time of the Scottish Independance referendum was that union was soley in the hands of the Scots. The rest of the Union was not asked its opinion, even in a non-binding manner.

    I would hope that any time another part of the UK is given the chance to separate, the rest of the UK is given an equal chance. So, if Scotland is asked again if they want to be part of the UK (as seems increasingly likely to happen in the next decade or two), the remainder of the UK should be asked “Do you want Scotland to be allowed to remain in the UK?”

    I suspect that, far from bribing the Scots with money equal to £1,400 per citizen per year to stay in the UK, the rest of the UK would vote to keep their money and say goodbye (which, my feelings if not any logic tells me, would be a pity).

    As for how the English want to be governed: I doubt many of them know. I was born in the late 1950s and grew up to see myself as British, then developed to see myself as European. Thanks to the EU, I stopped calling myself ‘European’ and thanks to the Scots, I started calling myself ‘English’. Very sad, in a world that has become so much more connected during my lifetime and in which we would all benefit by seeing ourselves more as ‘Earthlings’.

  2. “The problem facing policy-makers is that no-one is certain of what England wants”

    It’s often said that there is little or no interest within what is commonly considered England for ‘regional’ devolution. This is not quite true however. 50,000 people signed a petition calling for a Cornish Assembly in 2002. At the time a Cornwall Council opinion poll put support for a Cornish assembly at around 55%. The petition was collected over a couple of months by some motivated volunteers before the age of social media. This 10% of our population met with the criteria set by Prescott for the government to investigate a ‘regions’ desire for devolution. New Labour decided to renege on this promise and ignore Cornish calls for an assembly, pigheadedly sticking to their artificial government-zone regions drawn up in Whitehall. Various Liberal Democrat MP’s for Cornwall have defended the idea of Cornish devolution as well as campaigning for Cornish national minority status, funding of the Cornish language and democratic accountability for the Duchy of Cornwall. Perhaps the last example of this being Dan Rogerson’s Government of Cornwall Bill. It should also be noted that the Green party, amongst others, also supports Cornish devolution. The last PLASC date for Cornish schools showed that 46% of children would choose Cornish to describe their identity rather than English, British or some mixture.

    Mebyon Kernow – the party for Cornwall: https://www.mebyonkernow.org/

    The Cornish Constitutional Convention: http://www.cornishassembly.org/

    The Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National
    Minorities and the Cornish: http://www.scribd.com/doc/59678181/Cornish-Minority-Report

    • I wish Cornwall would vote for independence. That way, we wouldn’t have you hijacking discussions about England, a foreign country to you, and one that you hate, and the English taxpayer wouldn’t have to subsidise you lot. You don’t even have the courtesy to thank us for the English money that Westminster throws at you.
      Why settle for the greasy spoon of devolution when you can have the cordon bleu of independence?

  3. Why do I get the feeling that any constitutional convention will simply be hijacked by narrow interest groups for whom democracy is the last thing on their minds? There’s a very simple way to find out what the voters of England want: just give us a referendum, worded just like the one held in Scotland in 1997 (but with the words ‘Scotland’ or ‘Scottish’ replaced by ‘England’ or ‘English’, of course). The process would be quick, definitive and a hell of a lot cheaper than a convention, whose procedures would almost certainly be lavishly ‘adorned’ with political-speak and legalese. The other nations didn’t have conventions, so why should we?
    Straight-forward democracy should be for all of us, or none of us, as we all have the same citizenship and pay the same taxes. I’d prefer it to be for all of us.

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