Once Scotland votes, it's England's turn for a constitutional crisis

Regardless of the referendum outcome, major constitutional reform will be needed

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

Before David Cameron heads off for his summer holiday, he’ll be presented with a first draft of the Tory manifesto by Jo Johnson, Boris’s younger brother and a cautious, well-organised thinker. He dislikes publicity almost as much as the Mayor of London relishes it. Radical ministers lament that Johnson doesn’t like pushing their recalcitrant colleagues too far, but despite this, the early hints are that the manifesto will be a surprisingly bold document.

There will, though, be one thing missing from this draft: what to do about the English question. A member of the Tories’ home affairs manifesto committee group says that the subject was considered too contentious to discuss before the Scottish independence vote on 18 September.

This caution is understandable. Any plan to bar Scottish MPs from voting on certain issues would have been grist to the nationalist mill. But there are several reasons why the Tories do need to start thinking about this question.

First, it now looks more likely that the Scots will vote No. The Unionist campaign is in far better shape than it was two months ago, when the Cabinet was holding panicked discussions about its failings. Perhaps the surest sign that it is on course for victory is Gordon Brown re-emerging on to the Westminster political scene to discuss the issue. ‘There is going to be an almighty clash of egos to claim credit’ once the referendum is over, warns one member of the shadow Cabinet. One can’t imagine Brown taking kindly to Alistair Darling going down in the history as the man who saved both the British banking system and the Union from collapse.

Even if Scotland votes No, more powers will move to Holyrood. Cameron has already endorsed a new devolution deal that would grant the Scottish Parliament power to vary all elements of income tax except the personal allowance. The political logic behind this proposal is compelling. The Tories know they will only be able to recover north of the border when Scottish politics becomes about how to raise money as well as how to spend it. A Scottish Tory party that stood for lower taxes could begin to reconnect with the country’s middle class.

But if the Scots are granted these powers, then the asymmetries in the Union will become even more profound. The Welsh Tories are already pushing for a similar arrangement.

It has long been said that the answer to the West Lothian Question — why Scottish MPs should be allowed to make law for England, if English ones can’t make law for Scotland — is to stop asking it. Even if this riposte was credible once, it isn’t now. Ukip, as Nigel Farage emphasised to The Spectator recently, wants a federal UK with a separate English parliament. It would be a major strategic error for the Tories, or Labour, to allow Ukip to claim that it is the only party proposing a ‘fair deal for England’. This is particularly true, as a close vote in Scotland followed by more devolution could well prompt a backlash in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The last Tory manifesto promised to address the West Lothian question. It declared that ‘a Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and  Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries’. But in government, this agenda has been kicked into the long grass. When the Tory MP Harriet Baldwin tried to push it through a private members’ bill and various parliamentary interventions, it was made known that if she wished to advance in her career, she should drop the matter.

But this attitude won’t be tenable while a new devolution deal for Scotland is being negotiated and as the Welsh Assembly begins to use its new powers. So, what the Tories say in their manifesto on the subject will matter far more than before. The Liberal Democrats, who remain their most likely coalition partners, want a fully federal UK. But it is clear that there won’t be cross-party agreement on any new devolution deal because Ed Miliband is determined to oppose any settlement that allows tax competition between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. This competition is an integral part of both coalition parties’ plans.

The problem with federalism has always been that England is just too big. An English parliament would represent more than four fifths of Britons and would instantly become a competitor to the UK parliament. There would be a constant battle for political supremacy between the English First Minister and the British Prime Minister.

This is why the last Labour government was so keen to promote the English regions, which are a far more manageable size. But the English have shown a cussed refusal to accept devolution to their regions and cities. John Prescott’s proposed North East Assembly was soundly defeated and Cameron suffered a rebuff when nine out of ten English cities rejected his offer of a directly elected mayor.

Whatever form a federal structure eventually takes, it will require far more effort to be put into promoting Britishness. People must know the ties that bind this nation together.  Without this, the constituent parts of the UK will end up living separate lives under the same roof; something that will — in time — lead to separation. Indeed, part of the problem for the Unionist campaign in the Scottish referendum is how little Westminster-based politicians know about what is happening north of the border. This makes them hesitant about participating in the Scottish debate.

An emphasis on Britishness will help with integration, too. For too long, there has been a glib assumption that if you have to ask what Britishness is you don’t understand it. This, to put it mildly, is not helpful to immigrants to this country. It is much easier to be an engaged citizen if you know how Britain came to be a parliamentary democracy with the common law and a constitutional monarch.

The constitutional tinkering of the past 20 years has been a disaster. Devolution has not killed nationalism in Scotland, as its architects imagined, but led to a referendum on independence; it has also done nothing to improve the lives of Scots. The new constitutional settlement that will be required after the Scottish referendum will have to be both comprehensive and fair. To assume that the English question doesn’t need answering would, in this age of Ukip, be to take an awful gamble with the Union.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • ChuckieStane

    Reading this article leads one to only three workable solutions: an end to Scottish devolution, English (all England) devolution or Scottish Independence.

    Today, the Conservatives will commit to enhanced Devolution in a joint “guarantee” with Labour and the LibDems (even though a No vote is essentially a vote for the status quo) so the ending of Scottish devolution is off the table (and unacceptable in Scotland anyway). Enhanced devolution exacerbates the WLQ massively.

    The article effectively rules out English self-government (wrongly in my opinion) on the grounds that England is too big.

    That leaves only Scottish independence as the logical and most democratic solution for all. The enhanced devo “guarantee” makes independence more, not less, likely in the long term.

    Promoting “Britishness” is a marketing ploy not the basis for national unity or identity. The people of Britain worked together as Britons when they shared common goals and values. Times change. The constitutional tinkering of the last twenty years may be viewed as a disaster by many but the UK now is facing dysfunctional and asymmetric political structures. The “English question” must be answered. The union itself should not be seen as sacrosanct and certainly not more important than democracy.

  • Denis_Cooper

    If the Tory party really cared about this then on the same day that the Scots have their referendum then the English would be having a referendum on whether they wanted a devolved parliament for England. But of course those leading the Tory party only care about it to the extent that they are forced to care about it, in truth like Labour and the LibDems they view the English with loathing and contempt.

    Do you know what? After all these years of prevarication and obfuscation I’ve had more than enough of it, I’ve had more than enough of trying to get these ******** who control the Tory, Labour and LibDem parties to treat English people with some degree of respect.

    • global city

      This childish cry that the establishment hate the English helps to over up the much more dangerous truth.

      The Establishment will not consider an English parliament because the plan that they have committed to is to break it up entirely, as is intended for the ongoing development of the EU and it’s future ‘regions’.

      They have no intention of leaving the EU, so the intention is to break England up as a single political entity.

      • Denis_Cooper

        And is it not equally childish to suppose that is the case?

        • global city

          No, because no establishment figure has ever said anything as disparaging as you wrote, but the intention to carve England up into regions, with no role for London as a national capital is actual policy and a long term aim. The website of the committee of the regions explains this.

          • Denis_Cooper

            Have you been asleep for the past two decades?

          • global city

            Jack Straw does not make for proof of anti English sentiment in the establishment. nulabour had it’s fantasists and haters, but……

            I think you are conflating too many tangential incidents to make a case….. it’s more like a cry of waycism than anything of genuine substance.

  • BillRees

    The solution is to elect MPs to their ‘national’ Parliaments – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and let the British Parliament consist of seconded MPs from those national Parliaments to meet to discuss UK-wide issues, foreign affairs and defence.

    • Jambo25

      That’s Devo Max and it was turned down by all 3 Unionist parties.

    • global city

      I’ve already made my pitch for Liverpool to be the seat of the new British federal capital. As this was written on the Spectator blogs it is bound to happen!

      • Moderator

        Liverpool is a dead city with a horrid accent. ‘Managed decline’ comes to mind not ‘Federal Capital’ not that there is any need for one.

        • global city

          Tut, tut.

          Have you never given any consideration as to why it is in the state you mention (bit old hat actually, it is no longer quite third world status)?

          • Moderator

            What did they do, knock half of it down and cover it with pretty trees and flowers?

          • global city


            garden festival…Everton park….yes, sort of!

            having said that, all those nice new towers on the skyline are not cardboard cutouts.

          • Moderator

            With all due respect was the Garden Festival was in 1984 (I had to google that). I have seen some surprising pictures of Liverpool of Georgian buildings that would not look out of place in West London and looks pleasant but..winces a bit…the problem with Liverpool is that it is full of scousers. I do not mean to sound awful but it is what I think.

          • global city

            Liverpool is a fine big city with really good architecture and lots of it. This is mostly from it’s past when it was a very rich city that owned a 7th of all the ships in the world and controlled 1/4 of the world’s trade. It had the complex commercial infrastructure that you see in NYC or Hong Kong today, but for loads of reasons this has withered away. This is all reflected in it’s architectural heritage.

            To fall from that to what it is today explains why the disruption is so appalling.

            I don’t know why you would baulk at the notion of the city being full of scousers, unless you confine your idea of scousers to the hysterics you see on TV. Scousers come in all shapes and forms. If I said that I do not like London beasue those pearly kings and queens are stupid then you would know straight away that I was talking from ‘telly’ experience and knew nothing of the reality….yes?

            You should get up to Liverpool some time.

          • Pier66

            That’ s a man with a high professional cultural
            great comment…but we can said that the decline of city of liverpool was thanks all that wrongdoings from trade union, and labour party,
            Liverpool need back at 50’s a lovely Tory way!

          • global city

            The causes of it’s complete collapse is much more complicated than those two things. They were really just two of the last nails in the coffin. The decline started with the government taking on board the notion that IT could begin to arrange the economy more strategically than the market. This began just before WWI. The city’s complex commercial infrastructure began to be pulled apart one slither at a time, until there was nothing left. Post war nationalisations and ‘regionalisation’ were other important events outside of the city’s control… and on it went.

            Natural things happened in the market too, like US companies winning control of parts of it’s economy that Liverpool used to lead in, as well as companies just growing beyond their need to keep their Liverpool base (banks, shipping companies, etc) but it’s ability to keep developing it’s industry was pretty robust until the 1970s, (food refining and telecommunications, etc)….but! As the city lost parts of it’s older commercial sectors the emphasis for Local and national politics became ‘jobs’. This was actually quite successful after WWII, but it sowed the seeds of longer term continued decline for the future.

            This slow depletion of the city’s economy and control over it left it in a position that were like a perfect storm in the 1970s. Trade union militancy in the big branch plants, the nationalised docks, all strategic and profit levers being lost or transferred to Whitehall…. and the coup de grace…. joining the EU, which (for the politicians and central planners) ‘put us on the wrong side of the country’.

            The narrative that most people think they know about why the city declined so badly are really just the symptoms and consequences of the previous 60 years bad policies. Militant, Thatcher, ‘managed decline’ (which was raised but rejected, so played no part) came along after the vast amount of damage had already been done.

          • Pier66

            Perfect post, I am speechless…my compliments to you great culture…is a pleasure know a person like you,
            but let me add an important things to mention: since 1964 Liverpool was managed from LABOUR PARTY…and was a disaster…

          • global city

            Yes, but not permenantly. Liverpool seems to go along some sort of contraflow to national political choices. The city has swung since the late 60s’ from Liberal to Labour. During most of the Blair years it was in the hands of the Lib Dems…. talk about shoot yourself in the foot!

            The Pink (lefty thinking infecting institutions) blob has long been a misery the city has suffered though!

          • Pier66

            Why controflow to national political choices?

          • global city

            I can’t really say. Liverpool’s politics has always been crazy. Irish republican MP’s, the Protestant party, strong working class tory vote, rejection of Labour till the 1960s’, etc.

            I suppose that it is quite a parochial city, so the debates concentrate on city affairs, regardless of the national scene. Parochialism only works when you genuinely are somewhere important… which the Liverpool of today isn’t.

            Somebody mentioned below about the city being full of free spirits, but they wrote it like this is a problem or an unattractive trait/quality. I think it is the one defining quality from a former age of a more adventurous and interesting globally linked existence for the ordinary man and woman that we still retain. Why would you line up behind some arsehole who’s only promise is uptopia tomorrow?

          • Pier66

            You know what you have problems with Scousers
            Cause WE ARE BEST TEAM IN THE WORLD and you are
            a only a LOOSER!
            YNWA & TORY ALL THE WAY

          • Pier66

            Scousers nice people great accent and 2 great team Liverpool and…
            second Liverpool squad

        • Pier66

          Moderator you need study Britain history in details!

    • Moderator

      Get rid of the House of Lords and make that the house of representatives form all 3 nations and NI province in the UK. The House of Commons can become the English Parliament. There I just saved England billions of quid in building a new building.

  • IMarcher

    It really will not do to suggest that the solution to the ‘problem’ of asymmetry thrown up by granting national status to Scotland, Wales and NI, is to deny England its national status. Before gaily and profligately giving such status to the others, the British government of the time should have considered the impact on England. They failed to do so, and instead thought the English could be pushed around at the British government’s convenience.

    And don’t think that the only ‘question’ is the West Lothian one – the problem of Non-Representative MPs – those representing constituencies outside England – voting on English business. There is also the English Question: the British government deciding policy and bringing forward legislation for England when it should be an English government equivalent at the least to the Scottish administration doing so. We have seen this with the British government’s outrageous suggestion of selling off England’s forests in order to replenish British coffers – the proceeds from English assets available to the whole UK.

  • Salmondnet

    In the wake of the Scottish referendum their must be an English Parliament and Executive, but actually there should have been since 1998. Not much point in hoping for anything on this from the LibLabCons.

    • Moderator

      Westminster is the English Parliament and Whitehall the executive in all but name.

      • Salmondnet

        No Westminster is the British or United Kingdom parliament and has been since 1707. Read the act of Union if you doubt this. It is easy to tell the difference, If it was the English Parliament it would not have no representatives of Scottish, Welsh Northern Irish constituencies in it. Whitehall. of course, retains responsibilities for the whole of the United Kingdom In many areas and still has Ministers from constituencies outside England despite the dearth of Tories in Scotland.
        But you knew all that. Like many, you choose to ignore it for the sake of your own political preferences.

  • chrisd87

    How much support is there for an English Parliament? I worry that the idea is essentially an elite, academic one that would probably be a disaster if imposed in a top-down fashion.

    • Salmondnet

      The Campaign for an English Parliament has existed since 1998. It has been (an still is) a grass roots movement consistently rubbished by the political, media and academic establishments A few of the latter are now catching up. An English Parliament will certainly be less of a disaster than Westminster has been for the last seventeen years.

      • chrisd87

        That’s not the same as evidence of mass popular support, which would be needed for it not to be a white elephant like PCCs. I’d be interested to know what proportion of the English electorate would support the creation of a fully separate English parliament. My suspicion is that it’s pretty low.

        • Denis_Cooper

          Well let’s have a referendum then.

        • Salmondnet

          Then have a look here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devolved_English_parliament
          If there isn’t enough support it won’t be approved in a referendum, so you need have no fear. On the current polling evidence there is not much doubt that it would get at least as much support as there was, initially, for the Welsh Assembly. That was of course approved by barely more than a quarter of the Welsh electorate on a turn out of just over 50%, but try taking it away from them now.

          • brianbarder

            An English parliament and in particular an English executive (i.e. government) are plainly necessary if the UK is to have a durable democratic structure, Once all four UK nations have their own parliaments and governments in addition to the all-UK parliament and government at Westminster, the UK will have become a de facto federation, and the need right now is to begin discussing the division of powers and functions as between the four national parliaments and governments on the one hand, and the federal parliament and government at Westminster on the other. IOW it’s time we grew up and started to focus not on whether it should happen — because a form of federalism is inevitable (and highly desirable) if the Scots vote No in September — but on how it should and will work in practice. Studying the (generally) successful federal systems in the US and Australia would be a good start.

        • Blindsideflanker

          The last comprehensive polling I saw on it…..


          Which indicates that your suspicion is wrong.

        • vieuxceps2

          I suspect that you think of an English Parliament in addition to Wesminster. Not so.Our own Parliament would be in placeof Westminster and would consist of MPs for English seats only. We’d need a federal assembly drawn from the four home parliaments, Mps at Westmister now from devolved lands would be redundant,mucas today really.
          The name of this new nation would be, I suggest, Federation of the Isles.Has anice ring to it.

    • global city

      It is the only possible way to go, given devolution. It also breaks down the notion that Westminster is for England anyway. It is this idea that fosters so much of the separatist drive. The irony is that it is much of England that has suffered because of the massive centralisation of power in Wesminster/Whitehall, but try telling that to a cybernat!

      • Moderator

        Yes much of England has been ignored by Westminster…drive through most English ‘provincial’ cities and see the decay.

        • global city

          Yup! Re: our discussion further up in this thread.

          Industry set in aspic. ‘Capitalism’ centralised in that there lundun… commies with their hands on the commanding heights and the most essential national services from their Whitehall control centre, to say nothing of the huge amounts of tax sucked out of every town and city and taken off to the government.

    • Blindsideflanker

      Quite the reverse, it is the British elite who don’t want to talk about it, while the Englishman in the street has made up his mind. It is impossible to make the Westminster bubble, political and media, engage on the issue, and as such English constitutional issues just can’t break through the wall of indifference.

      A for instance is this pod cast, James Forsyth begins to talk about constitutional issue from an England perspective, then Isabel Harman says ‘yes’ and you think, Ah, they are going to develop the argument, but no she then goes off a completely different tangent and brings up Scottish issues. This happens time and time again, the British establishment are allergic to debating constitutional English issues.

      When Gordon Brown had anointed himself Laird over England , and the BBC did a question the leaders piece, with Martha Kearny, Nick Robinson , and Evan Davis asking people to send in questions on their message board for them to ask. Being a bit of an anorak I thought I would see if the BBC actually represented peoples views, and totalled up the question categories. The two most requested questions, by a long long way were about pensions and English devolution. We managed to get one question from them on English devolution, before Martha Kearny cut in a said, ‘lets move on to more important issues’ and Gordon Brown was let off the hook and not embarrassed on it.

      • Blindsideflanker

        PS Hidden in the back of my documents file I found the breakdown of the questions people requested ….

        The West Lothian Question
        35 questions recommended by 1038 people

        Tax and pensions 39 questions recommended by 702 people.

        Questioning his mandate 16 questions recommended by 360 people

        Iraq 5 questions recommended by 50 people

        Housing 5 questions recommended by 83 people

        EU 5 questions recommended by 85 people.

  • Alf

    UKIP say that a Full English Parliament is necessary to rebalanced the Union and give the English their national equality and recognition back.

    • Moderator

      It is the English Nationalist Partei.

  • Malcolm McCandless

    3 snobs talking politics.

  • john

    Let’s give democracy a chance. Of monarchy, HofL, Commons, only the last is elected. Dump the royals, make the HoL an elected Senate (a la US model) and we’d finally give the dormant 99% a shot at running the country.

  • errea

    Britain doesn’t have a Common Law system – England and Wales has; Scotland’s is based on Civil Law. As per usual, British is used as synonym of English…

  • misomiso

    If faced with their MPs not getting to vote in parliament on all issues, I think the Welsh would rather dissolve their Assembly.

    Worst Hospitals and Schools in the Country, and then Labour MPs like Chris Bryant get to be able to speak about welfare etc.

    • Blindsideflanker

      Having voted to segregate themselves from the hated English, surely it is not for the Welsh to vote themselves back, that is for the English to vote if they want them back.

  • mikewaller

    It is easy enough to fill a page spelling out the problem, the real test is coming up with a viable solution. The latter is something the writer conspicuously fails to do. He does point out the central, possibly irresolvable, difficulty: the sheer size of England in relation to the other constituent parts of the UK. It can be clearly illustrated in terms of TV presenters. Were a totally equal opportunities approach adopted across the piece, the English would have very small minority of non-English exotics whereas Scotland and Wales would have their visual media massively dominated individuals very clearly of a different ethnicity.

    The real choice seems to me to lie between that of tidying up the politics by resolving the Union into two small counties of little or no geo-political consequence plus one larger, middle-order also ran; or living with the messy politics and continuing to be of some significance in an increasingly dangerous and volatile world.

  • brianbarder

    This article makes the common mistake of arguing that the UK can’t become a federation because of the disproportionate size of the population of England. On the contrary: it’s precisely because of this disproportionality that we need a federal system, which would go a long way to protecting the three smaller nations against interference in their internal affairs and other kinds of domination by England. Under our former unitary system and still under our inchoate, quasi-federal, half-baked half-way house constitution since partial devolution, and despite such devolution as has been allowed to happen, the three smaller nations have almost no protection against English centralist domination; a federal system would provide it. England’s size is the reason for federalism, not an obstacle to it.

    The idea deployed in the article that an English parliament (what about its government, incidentally?) would become a rival to the federal parliament and government at Westminster is similarly without foundation, as the most casual look at federations in other countries will confirm. The federal centre and the four national parliaments and governments would have completely separate and distinct functions and responsibilities. No-one argues that federalism in Australia doesn’t work because the Premier of New South Wales is seen as a rival to the federal Prime Minister of the whole of Australia in Canberra: they do completely different jobs in totally distinct spheres. Same thing applies to the Governor of, for example, New York State in relation to the President of the United States.

    We should stop inventing imaginary obstacles to the completion of the devolution process, namely a federation of the four UK nations, and instead look at the way federal or semi-federal systems work in, e.g., Australia (with its closely comparable Westminster system of government), the US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and numerous other countries, most of which share at least some of the UK’s characteristics. It’s a very English delusion to assume that we’re inventing the wheel. “Once again Britain leads the world in inventing a federal form of constitution!”

  • If Scotland does break away, or even if the Tories manage to keep their more devolution line, then the need for English devolution will become pressing. However, let’s be clear and say that it has to involve not one English assembly, but several. The northern big cities have really very little in common with the home counties commuter belt, so it is to be hoped that the North, Midlands and South at the very least would get assemblies. London probably makes a fourth, with maybe Cornwall producing a fifth.

    I may live in Scotland now, but I am a Northerner, and there is no way that Northern English people who hate scummy Tories as much as the Scots will accept Home Counties rule.

  • Fungus Addams

    It’s easy to solve this.
    Remove the House of Lords. Turn that chamber into a House for a federal UK.
    The House of Commons becomes an English parliament. Scottish, Welsh and N Irish ministers have no input into this chamber.
    Everyone gets a referendum on devolution / independence; it’s an affront to democracy that the English are denied any say in their government or willingness to put up with this wretched Union.
    England gets independence, and the Celts can go f*** themselves.