Following the historic vote on Scottish independence, British prime minister David Cameron emerged early Friday morning to deliver remarks praising Scottish voters for keeping the United Kingdom (‘our country of four nations’) together.
He promised to keep a pledge to enact rapid legislation devolving further powers to the Scottish parliament (‘devo-max’), but he simultaneously promised to propose reforms addressing the role of Scottish MPs on matters that are exclusively English in nature, responding to loud grumbling from English Tories that Scottish MPs shouldn’t have a vote on English matters and who have long cried, ‘English votes for English laws.’
In tying the issue of the promised Scottish devolution to the West Lothian question, Cameron was hoping to calm his own backbenchers, who, even before voters cast ballots in the September 18 referendum, briefing against the unfairness of the ‘Barnett formula,’ whereby Scottish residents receive greater per-capita government subsidy than English residents.
But that left Downing Street scrambling after both the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) and the pro-union, center-left Labour Party attacked Cameron for trying to tie the two issues together. Alex Salmond, who announced plans on Friday to step down as first minister after losing the referendum by a 10% margin, alleged that Cameron was already backing away from his promise to the Scottish people:
Salmond said that no voters in the referendum would feel they had been “misled”, “gulled” and “tricked”. The first minister told the Sunday Politics on BBC1: “I am actually not surprised they are cavilling and reneging on commitments; I am only surprised by the speed at which they are doing it. They seem to be totally shameless in these matters. The prime minister wants to link change in Scotland to change in England. He wants to do that because he has difficulty in carrying his backbenchers on this and they are under pressure from Ukip.
“The Labour leadership of course are frightened of any changes in England which leave them without a majority in the House of Commons on English matters. I think the vow was something cooked up in desperation for the last few days of the campaign and I think everyone in Scotland now realises that.”
Cameron strongly hinted that his approach would limit the ability of Scottish (or Welsh or Northern Irish) MPs to vote on matters that apply solely to English legislation. That echoes calls from other high-profile Conservative leaders like chief whip Michael Gove.
But it would be politically controversial for at least two reasons.
The first is that Cameron risks making Scottish voters feel like second-class citizens by limiting the role of their MPs at Westminster. That, in turn, could embolden pro-independence Scots to seek (and win) a second referendum on independence.
But Labour will certainly oppose the approach as well. The party currently holds 41 of 59 Scottish constituencies, so any changes limiting the powers of Scottish MPs would reduce Labour’s ability to govern in the event that Miliband becomes prime minister after next May’s general election.
Though Labour today would suffer from an ‘English votes for English laws’ principle in the House of Commons, the concerns reflect broader difficulties about the workability of any rule limiting the voice of non-English MPs. Imagine a Labour government trying to run the country with majority of nationwide MPs, but only a minority of English MPs. Every policy issue would become politicized, because there could always be a fight over whether any particular piece of legislation is ‘English-only’ or ‘UK-wide.’ You could easily foresee legislators fighting to change bills to widen or narrow their applicability solely on the basis of political calculations. Even in the abstract, it would be difficult to define the exact characteristics that would make general legislation applicable solely to England.
Cameron, accordingly, find himself trapped between Labour, the SNP and potentially poorly executed constitutional reforms, on the one hand, and an increasingly angry English base of conservative supporters and a surging United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Its leader Nigel Farage is already using the English devolution question as a political issue:
Farage claimed the prime minister was “panicked” by the English question, and dismissed plans for a committee to look into a solution. “I really do think now we absolutely need to have a constitutional convention to talk about how we create a fair, federal United Kingdom,” he argued.
Mr Farage said: “I think England needs a voice – we’ve heard a lot from Scotland. The tail can’t continue wagging the dog any longer.
Moreover, the English nationalism issue might even bode well for Cameron, who isn’t a lock for reelection in May 2015. Though polls have narrowed, the Conservatives still trail Labour by a low single-digit margin in what will be a fiercely contested campaign. By emphasizing the English side of the federalism question, Cameron might win over some votes in traditional Labour working-class constituencies that have turned to the right, including to UKIP, over issues like immigration and the European Union.
Farage and others have called for Cameron’s government to give England what the United Kingdom has now given Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — devolved domestic policymaking powers to a regional assembly. It’s a solution that avoids creating different classes of MPs at the national level, and it seems intuitively balanced and natural as the United Kingdom becomes a more federal constitutional state.
But the demographics of the United Kingdom demonstrate why this is also such an awkward solution. Fully 83.9% of the UK population lives in England (just 8.4% lives in Scotland, 4.8% in Wales and 2.9% in Northern Ireland). Having an ‘English parliament’ would amount to Canada devolving power to a parliament in Québec and establishing another parliament for the rest of English-speaking Canada.
If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. The differences between provincial policy needs in, say, Newfoundland and British Columbia, are at least as different as the policy needs between Alberta and Québec. In the same way, the priorities of northern England or Cornwall are completely different from the priorities of London, which already has a city-level assembly of its own.
One decision that Cameron could easily enact within days is the appointment of a secretary of state for English affairs.
But why not embrace a more balanced version of devolution and revisit the idea of regional parliaments for each of the nine regions into which the British government already divides England?
Each assembly would presumably have less autonomy than Scotland — a ‘devo-min’ approach more in line with the level of devolution to Wales or the current London assembly, with Westminster retaining power over national institutions like the National Health Service, taxation and foreign and security policy affairs.
The costs of building nine separate parliaments, and the additional layer of a new. Initially, each region’s parliament could be constituted of the region’s current roster of MPs, and the regional councils could meet, for convenience, both in regional capitals and in Westminster. As England’s regional authorities gradually assume control over discrete areas of policy, regions might hold their own elections, just as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland currently do.
One of the most salient issues in the Scottish referendum was the outsized role of London as the lopsided cultural, economic and administrative capital of the United Kingdom, even while the city has become a global center, increasingly out of financial reach for anyone who isn’t incredibly wealthy. It’s an issue that applies just as equally to the north of England, which has suffered from the same de-industrialization that Scotland has over the past three decades. The north-south divide in England isn’t new, but it’s growing. Notwithstanding the return of urban growth in cities like Manchester and Leeds, the policy priorities of northern England and greater London are vastly different.
The last Labour government, flush off the success of its devolution processes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and having devolved power in London to an elected mayor and a city-wide assembly, proposed a similar devolution to assemblies in England’s three northern regions — North East England, North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber. But in the first of three planned referenda, North East England’s voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal for a regional assembly by a margin of 77.9% to 22.1%. Labour shelved its plans and eventually dropped plans for the other two referenda.
The disastrous North East England referendum was held in November 2004, though, and northern England has only grown more distant, economically and culturally, from London in the intervening decade, while watching Scotland extort promises of near-absolute autonomy from Cameron over the last two weeks. It’s well beyond time to revisit the issue, and to do so in a way that balances Scottish contributions to national policymaking with ever greater devolution.