So Scotland is staying. So far as I’m concerned this is excellent. I like Scotland. They have shortbread, a willingness to put batter around anything, and a refreshingly positive attitude to the notion of the wraparound skirt as menswear. All these things seem like markers of a jolly good place. So, yay Scotland! So glad you decided to stick around.
But politics moves quickly and with the ink barely dry on the final ‘no’ vote, the debate has already moved on to what we do next. Scotland has already been promised some form of ‘devo max’ with increased tax raising powers and greater autonomy over domestic policy, and David Cameron’s bleary-eyed statement first thing this morning promised to look at the issue of greater English autonomy over English domestic issues. This is the problem in UK politics usually referred to as the ‘West Lothian question‘ – in a nutshell, how does one resolve the problem of MPs from Scottish constituencies (like West Lothian) having votes in the UK Parliament on issues that only affect England (or England and Wales), when English MPs have no vote on the same issues in Scotland?
Essentially there are two possible ways to square this circle: either you continue to decide English domestic policy at Westminster and just don’t let Scottish MPs vote on those questions; or you establish a separate English Assembly or Parliament with equivalent powers to the Scottish Parliament.
The problem with the first of those is that you have a significant risk of ending up effectively two governments within the same parliament. The Conservative vote in the UK tends to be more concentrated in England, particularly southern England, whereas the Labour vote is stronger in Scotland, and also Wales. Obviously shares of the vote fluctuate but it’s fairly easy to imagine a situation where Labour hold an outright majority across the UK, but don’t have a majority of English MPs. In that scenario, who forms a government? Do we have a Labour government who are able to pass defence and foreign policy but are hamstrung on English domestic issues? Or do we end up with, for example, a Labour UK government, and a Conservative English government who time share the government benches and all swap places depending on what sort of issue is being debated?
The further problem with this solution is that by leaving English decision making at Westminster, you reinforce the idea that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own exciting identities, and England is just a sort of Britain-lite. This annoys the other parts of the Union because it downplays their contribution to what Britishness is, and it, increasingly, annoys some of the English as well, as it denies them any sort of identity at all.
So, for me, a new English Assembly or Parliament feels like the way forward. It’s an idea I’ve never been keen on in the past. Honestly, on a cultural identity level, I feel human, and then British, and then European, and then Yorksire, and then possibly, if pushed, English. But I also think that treating all four nations within the union the same, in terms of what powers they hold directly and what is exercised from Westminster, is the only potentially equitable way forward. So if Scotland is to have increased tax raising and domestic policy powers, then I suggest that Welsh, Northern Irish, and English Parliaments should be treated in the same way.
To do that is really complicated. You need to work out an fair way of raising and allocating taxes to UK and individual nation spending. Doing that is a potential minefield, and involves the Treasury, in particular, loosening its grip on huge areas of policy and spending. Doing that super-fast, as David Cameron says he will, would be colossally stupid. Constitutional amendment has to be done right. If it’s not, you’ll be dealing with the fallout for not just years, but potentially decades or centuries. Constitutional changes have to be crafted and considered, and that’s doubly hard to do if you’re a country that doesn’t really have a clear single document written constitution to start with.
So what’s my vision for an English Parliament? Well first-off, it shouldn’t meet in London. London is the capital of the UK. It’s a major international city, and should be the place that all four nations can look to as their shared capital. An English Parliament should meet somewhere a bit more, well a bit more English. I’d suggest Winchester, or York, or Salisbury – somewhere with a bit of Englishness in its history. I also feel that a properly English Parliament would stop around 4pm each day for tea, and members would show disapproval of another’s speech not by barracking and catcalling but by tutting pointedly.
So there you go Mr Cameron – the West Lothian question resolved before breakfast. Just, please, try to take a bit more time finessing the details.