The political alternatives to an English Parliament are all insufficient, impractical or unnatural. The Tories supposed preferred solution is to allow English MPs a veto on matters which affect only England. This is impractical because it ignores the position of the executive. Such a system would mean in effect that no party elected without an English majority could govern. Suppose for example that the party divisions in the Commons were as follows: for the entire UK (650 seats) – Labour 330, Tories 280, others 40: for England alone (533 seats) – Labour 230, Tories 288, others 15. The UK wide Labour majority would be robbed of any say over the expenditure of approximately three quarters of all public expenditure in the UK. Further complications would arise if the English component of the Commons was “hung”, that is no parliamentary party had a majority of English seats. The worst possible situation would be a Commons in which the overall House and the English component were both “hung”, but with radically different balances between the parties. For example, suppose that Labour and the Libdems had an overall majority in the Commons, but did not have an overall majority between them of English seats.
There would also be the question of who would make policy to present to the Commons. Obviously it could not be a party without an English majority for that would be pointless. It would have to be the party with a majority of English MPs. This would mean in effect an English government within Westminster, which would have more practical power and patronage that the UK government.
The other alternatives are an English Grand Committee, an English Secretary in the cabinet, a reduction in the numbers of non-English MPs and regional English assemblies . An English Grand Committee would solve nothing for of itself for it would decide nothing. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Grand Committees were of importance prior to devolution, if at all, because each of the Celtic parts of the UK had a cabinet minister with the powers of a viceroy, a budget to meet most of their domestic expenditure under the control of the cabinet minister and a bureaucracy to carry out ministerial policy. An English Secretary with similar powers would be an absurdity, because he or she would exercise more power than the prime minister for most of UK government expenditure and patronage would be under his control.
That brings us to regional assemblies. These present daunting practical difficulties. There is no natural division of regions in England. Even those parts which are most commonly cited as having a strong regional identity – the South West, Yorkshire and the North East – are far from being homogeneous. There is an emotional division between Cornwall and the rest of the South West. Yorkshire is extremely diverse, the south with its large cities and very substantial ethnic population having little in common with the North Riding, which is largely rural. As for the North East, anyone who knows the area will realise that the people are far from seeing themselves as a single entity and often display considerable rivalry, for example between Sunderland and Newcastle. As for the rest of England, there is no obvious division anywhere. Moreover, traditional regional loyalties are much diluted by internal migration. In Cornwall, for example, less than forty percent of its population was born in the county. There are local loyalties in England, but they are precisely that, local, being based on neighbourhoods, towns, cities and villages.
If Regional Assemblies were set up, all the complaints which are now levelled at Westminster will be replicated and most probably amplified, because local animosities are greater than national animosities. There will be accusations of remoteness – the likely representative regions would be physically large – complaints of unequal spending within the region and disputes about the distribution of centrally raised taxation. There is also the problem of subsidies. The richer regions would come to resent paying for the poorer in the same way that England resents subsidizing the Celts. Eventually this dissatisfaction would be given a political voice. Already there are political stirrings in London about the amount of money which is redistributed to the rest of the country. For example, on 22/7/99 the London local paper, the Evening Standard, carried an article by the chair of the Association of London Government, Toby Harris. It began: ” For too long the taxpayers of England have been bank-rolling the rest of the UK. Too much of the tax revenues generated by our households and businesses are recycled to the supposedly more needy regions of the UK, while too many of the capital’s own needs go unmet.” As London has an economy larger than Sweden’s, a reduction in her willingness to pay tax would have very serious implications for the poorer parts of England. Everything I have said about the problems facing the Celts within a federal UK apply to English Regional government. Regional Assemblies would lose whatever appeal they might have once it became clear that subsidies from the wealthier parts of England might cease or be reduced.
There is also the question of what powers Regional Assemblies could be reasonably given. The natural tendency for Westminster will be to give them as little power as possible, indeed to produce bodies which are little more than local councils. Yet this will be easier said than done. The Scottish Parliament controls most domestic matters other than major tax raising. Even the Welsh Assembly deals with a great deal of domestic legislation – those who doubt this should tune into Welsh Questions in the Commons. Time and again questions are rejected because they deal with matters now outside Westminster’s competence. It is difficult to see how English Regional Assemblies could be given anything less than the Welsh and improbable that they could be denied that which has been granted to Scotland. Indeed, it is improbable that the Welsh will be satisfied with a lesser status for long. This has profound implications. That Scotland or Wales may institute new laws which differ from those in England is one thing because they can claim to be a national governing entity: for English Regions to do the same quite another. To take an example, we could end up with different laws on abortion in the South West and Yorkshire. Even more problematic would be regional differences with commercial implications, such as different rates of tax or safety regulations. In effect, we would have not one system of English law but many.
Reducing the number of non-English members at Westminster is a non-solution. It is true that there is an imbalance which should be addressed because seats in England are on average substantially larger than those in the rest of the UK , for example, Welsh seats are around 14,000 electors short of those in England. . However, even if the imbalance is remedied, it would not address Tam Dayell’s West Lothian Question, namely why should non-English members vote on English matters when English MPs may not vote on Celtic matters?.
There are those who argue that no change is necessary because English MPs are always in the majority. This argument is bogus because it ignores the reality of party discipline. It is highly improbable that English MPs of any political colour would regularly breach three line whips. Most particularly, it is difficult to imagine Labour and Tory MPs sitting for English seats combining to defeat a Labour government. But the difficulty goes beyond the obvious. Any future Labour or LibLab coalition government would probably be substantially dependent on non-English seats. Consequently, such a government would never introduce policies driven solely by what is best for England. Good examples of such behaviour already exist in the present Labour government’s failure to take action to reduce either the number of Celtic seats in the Commons or the subsidies paid by England to the Celts. The suggestion is a piece of casuistry worthy of a sixteenth century Jesuit.
Regional assemblies may appear to be off the political agenda at present but there are three reasons why they may reappear. The most potent is the fact they are the Euroenthusiasts’ preferred means of preventing England from realising her political potential . The groundwork for this has already been done through the institution of eight Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and the creation of unelected consultative bodies which roughly correspond to the physical areas covered by the RDAs. Interestingly, these divisions of England correspond to the English regions planned by the EU. It is true that the coalition government is committed to abolishing the RDAs, but it is a fair bet that something similar will take their place.
The second reason why regional assemblies may again become a live political option is that it suits both Labour and the LibDems, both of whom are less than dominant in England at national level. They would see such assemblies as a means of building support and power in England. That would be particularly so if some form of PR was used to elect the assemblies. It would also have the advantage from their point of view of weakening England as a political force by politically Balkanising it.
The third reason is that should the Alternative Vote become the system for electing the Commons Britain would be in a situation of more or less permanent coalition, with at least one of the coalition partners being in favour of regional assemblies. The fourth reason is that regional assemblies would kick the West Lothian question into touch for a while at least as the English were distracted by the novelty of the new assemblies. The fifth reason is the ambition of would-be politicians of any stamp who will see new opportunities to get their feet under the political table and their snouts into the taxpayer filled trough.
Although people do not generally realise it, the process of English political regionalisation has already begun with the mayor and assembly for London . As London and its environs has an substantially larger economy than Scotland this is of considerable significance.
Regional assemblies in England would not utterly destroy English national feeling, but they would lead to the development of regional political classes which would, out of self-interest or ideological conviction, actively work to create bogus divisions within England. In the absence of a national English parliament, such regional voices would be difficult to counter.