For many English people, the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence is a reminder of England’s Cinderella status in the United Kingdom. While Scotland and Northern Ireland enjoy a large degree of self-government, Wales has significant administrative autonomy (and is in the process of gaining a wide range of new legislative powers), England is entirely governed by Westminster and Whitehall.
But this constitutional state of affairs is no longer considered acceptable by many English who feel overlooked by Westminster politicians and short-changed by asymmetrical devolution. In particular, English voters seem to resent the fact that Scottish MPs can vote on matters that affect England whilst Scottish issues are (mostly) decided by the Holyrood parliament.
An opinion poll commissioned by the universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff revealed that 62% of English voters agree that, following a no vote, “Scottish MPs should be prevented from voting on laws that apply only in England”. This hardening of attitudes towards Scotland is hardly shocking but what came as a surprise to many is that 54% of voters supported the idea of an English parliament.
Until now the Westminster elite assumed English voters were not interested in self-government. That was a comforting thought to those who believed that the best answer to the “West Lothian question” was not to ask it.
But in reality the English were never given the chance to taste genuine self-government. Proposals for an English Parliament were never contemplated and for good reasons too. As a representative body of the largest and richest nation of the United Kingdom, an English Parliament would dwarf the devolved bodies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and would reduce Westminster to political and constitutional irrelevance.
The eight English regional assemblies proposed by the last Labour government in 2003 were an unsatisfactory solution too. Those regional assemblies had so few legislative powers that they were little more than talking shops. So it is not surprising that in 2004 voters from the Northeast of England voted no on the referendum that proposed to create what they saw as an extra layer of politicians and bureaucrats.
The 2004 referendum in the Northeast of England put an end to the debate on English devolution, but maybe it is time to revisit the idea of regional assemblies. The result of the Scottish referendum may make it a necessity. If, as the opinion polls suggest, Scottish voters reject independence, the train is already in place for Westminster to grant further fiscal powers to Holyrood. The three main parties have recently given assurances to Scotland about the scenario of “devo-max”.
And as MPs and peers return to Westminster in the coming weeks they will pen the final amendments to the Wales Bill which will grant more powers, including borrowing and taxation powers, to the Welsh Assembly. These two developments will emphasise the asymmetrical nature of devolution and will foment further English resentment towards the non-English MPs sitting in Westminster.
More importantly, the mood also changed in England. English devolution is no longer a cause defended only by fringe groups such as the English Democrats. This cause is gaining some momentum amongst English (and some Scottish) MPs. More importantly, English voters seem to be open to the idea. As Professor Professor Michael Kenny showed in his book The Politics of English Nationhood, Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh devolution, rising mistrust towards the European Union, and the sense of economic and cultural insecurity brought by globalisation have contributed to the rise of an English national identity.
In Westminster, the three main political parties have been aware of the changing mood in England but for a variety of reasons – namely electoral considerations and a fear of stirring the wrong type of nationalism – do not know how to respond to it. The parties of the coalition seem to be in two minds about it. Having abolished the English regional development agencies in 2010 the coalition has recently promised a £6bn fund to boost development in the English regions.
The Labour Party seems less confused but it is equally timid. This spring, Labour leader Ed Miliband made proposals for devolution of fiscal powers to English cities. But they are too modest, too technocratic and do not seem to either recognise rising English national identity or to address the constitutional problems created by Scottish and Welsh devolution.
In fairness, these are not easy problems to solve. Having ruled out big bang solutions like an English parliament, piecemeal proposals such as regional representation in the House of Lords or those made by the McKay Commission leave the fundamental problem of the English question unanswered. But this does not mean that there are no other options.
As the Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael recently suggested there is a “logical conclusion” to this constitutional conundrum. That logical solution is federalism and English regional assemblies. He may well be right.