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.