Friday, 19 September 2014
We need an English Parliament (in Bradford)
I remember, prior to the 2010 General Election, speaking with Eric Pickles at Party Conference about the 'West Lothian Question'. Eric's view back then was that the question wasn't really a problem and explained - accurately - that it wasn't exactly a burning issue on the doorsteps. You typical Tory voter wasn't going to add 'English Votes for English Laws' to the things they wanted from a new Tory government - certainly not compared to the urgent job of sorting out the economy and mending the train crash that was Labour's management of government finances.
I think that has changed. Not as much as people think following the sensible decision of Scottish people to reject the blandishments of Alex Salmond's rose-tinted independence. But next election, for the first time in a long while, the asymmetry of the UK's constitutional arrangements will be an issue in England especially if we assume that the process of delivering on the devolution promises to Scotland is under way.
Two questions need to be answered - probably on the same timetable as Scottish 'DevoMax'. Firstly are we content with constitutional asymmetry and secondly, having answered the first question, giving the precise details of any new constitutional settlement for the UK. In both these questions the real issue isn't about Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland but is about England. If we reject asymmetry meaning that all the devolved elements of the UK have the same powers and the same relationship with the UK government, then the question for England is whether we have a single English Parliament or a series of regional assemblies.
If we accept asymmetry then the picture for England is more complicated with options ranging from no change at all through solutions founded on English MPs 'double-hatting' to Spanish-style regional mayors or greater devolution to local councils. The problem here is that we retain resentments since one area gets more power or cash, or else we create a series of demarcation disputes between UK and English laws, between differential devolution to regions or sub-regions and between the devolved assemblies and areas without comparable levels of devolution.
Much though there is some appeal in 'home rule' for Yorkshire, I don't see regional assemblies as a solution - firstly because we immediately face boundary issues and secondly because devolution from a UK government to individual regions effectively abolishes England (at least in constitutional terms). If there is to be devolution to regions, sub-regions, cities or shire counties then that should be a decision for an English Parliament.
It seems to me that a 'four nations' solution matches local expectation but also opens up reforms focused on a more federal arrangement for the UK - this might include the numbers of UK MPs, the role (and means of election) for the House of Lords and the promotion of new locally negotiated arrangements for local government. Although giving English members of the UK Parliament a secondary role as an English Parliament provides a quick fix, it also raises some challenges in terms of administration even while it resolves the issue of law-making. Put simply there would be a Scottish government and a Welsh government but no English government - we could find the situation where a Scottish education secretary can't vote on the laws but is in charge of their implementation in England. The 'West Lothian Question' won't have been answered.
It seems that the Conservative Party is committed to seeking a resolution of the question - albeit with a preference for a Westminster solution rather than an English Parliament. However, neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats seem to want this with the former wanting some sort of gathering for the great and good to decide on a new constitution (or not) and the latter wanting to abolish England.
For me, the answer has to be an English Parliament with the same devolved powers as those given to Scotland. And, of course, that Parliament should be in Bradford.