An English Parliament in a federal UK
There is one constitutional reform that should be top of the list, writes LORD FOULKES
Now that the Welsh assembly has had its powers enhanced we have three of the four nations of the United Kingdom with powers over most domestic matters controlled by devolved parliaments. In each case those domestic laws need only pass through one chamber to become law. The House of Lords has no say and in each country there is no demand for what, in Scotland, might be a ‘House of Lairds’.
Meanwhile domestic laws which apply only to England are voted on by Scottish, Welsh and Ulster MPs and have also to pass through the Lords, where we ethnic peers also vote on them. Understandably this has upset a few English MPs. Although many of them are Tories, some Labour members have also expressed concern. This is not surprising. Indeed it is astonishing the protests have not been louder and more widespread, The anomaly was foreseen by the former West Lothian MP Tam Dalyell who used it to argue against devolution, and has since been dubbed the ‘West Lothian Question’.
It is better described as a major democratic deficit in our constitution. English politicians and public have taken it so far with such equanimity for a few reasons. Many have previously seen England and the UK as interchangeable terms, real-term effects have been relatively minimal, and, above all, there has been no focus for opposition. That now looks like changing. With Scotland, for example having free prescriptions, free personal care for the elderly and free higher education provided, in the view of some English people, by English taxpayers, dissent is growing.
Apart from the peripheral Campaign for an English Parliament, with apologies to Gareth Young, and a few fringe groups, there has been little political support. Labour has been opposed to an English parliament because they believe it would have a permanent Tory majority.
This need not be so. We are already seeing the same electorate in Northern Ireland and Wales vote differently for devolved parliaments to how they do in UK elections, and this is now beginning to be apparent in Scotland. And, of course the outcome crucially depends on the electoral system which is adopted. This is an issue which will not go away. It will, instead, become a growing grievance.
There are three constitutional structures for the UK which are inherently stable. The centralised system which existed previously was stable but has now been overtaken by events. Of course, it would be possible for Scotland and Wales to become independent and Ireland to be unified, but this break-up of the UK is not favoured by the vast majority and would be economically disastrous.
The remaining stable option is federalism. It was once the favoured option of the Liberals and is the one I strongly support. At present we have an imperfect form of federalism. To make it stable we need to complete our process of phased federalism with the creation of an English parliament responsible in England for all those matters devolved to Holyrood in Scotland. The UK parliament which might then be able to become unicameral would remain responsible for foreign affairs, defence, the economy, employment and welfare, which remain common in all parts of the UK
The English and their politicians would then be able to better define and express Englishness, to celebrate St George’s Day, have dinners with readings from Wordsworth and to support both English and UK teams with enthusiasm and without apology.
The Rt. Hon. The Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (or “The Rt. Hon. The Lord Foulkes of Cumnock” to his friends) is a former Minister of State at the Scotland Office. He stepped down as Labour MSP for Lothians in 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @GeorgeFoulkes. This post originally appeared on George’s own website.