Friday, 19 September 2014

English Devolution

So, the referendum is over. After all the highs and lows, after panic and elation, Scotland has voted resoundingly to stay inside the United Kingdom.

The offer of further devolution to the Scottish Parliament has been a key feature of the campaign, and this, together with the unionists' commitment to the much-maligned Barnett Formula, the method of allocating funding to the devolved assemblies, has raised the question of English Devolution again.

The basic premise is, if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own assemblies or parliaments, why cannot England? Why can't the United Kingdom be a federal union, operating on a similar basis to, say, the United States?

The simple answer, of course, is that England doesn't need devolution.

Consider the United States. Each state is, in effect, devolved from the Federal administration in Washington. They have pro rata representation in the House of Representatives, and two seats each in the Senate. Why can't we apply their system to the UK?

Quite simply, because it wouldn't work. The US system is built on the assumption that each state holds relatively equal sway, due to the fact that there aren't massive variations in things like population and GDP. Of course, there are at the extremes - New York holds far more of both than, say, Wyoming. But we're not talking orders of magnitude, and the sheer number of states within their union means that such discrepancies can be averaged out. No one state holds sway over the entire union.

This is not the case with the UK. One state dominates the union, in terms of population, GDP and representation. That state is England.

England represents about 82% of the UK population, 82% of its elected representatives and 79% of its GDP. England bestrides the United Kingdom like a colossus. If England were devolved, it would literally make the Westminster Parliament utterly irrelevant, because it would be unable to impose its will upon a separate English Parliament.

The only way for a federal union to work in the UK would be for England to be divided into about nine or ten mini-states. As it happens, England does divide quite nicely along cultural and historical lines - Northumbria, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the East and West Midlands, the Home Counties, Greater London, the West Country and East Anglia. This would probably give enough diversity for a federal union to function, by effectively breaking up England's block vote. However, England hasn't historically reacted well to attempts to partition it.

Even if the worst case scenario - from an English point of view - were to be presented. Imagine that every Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MP clubbed together to vote for a bill in Parliament that would apply 100% Income Tax to every Englishman, with the money being exclusively reserved for non-English use. Even if they all voted the same way, they would still only amount to 18% of the votes in the House of Commons, and they need 50% to pass a bill. In other words, even if the other home nations wanted to enforce a bill on England, they would require the consent of 40% of the other English MPs. Not to mention the support of the Queen. Who is also English.

We could amend Parliamentary procedure so that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs cannot vote on England-only matters, but it wouldn't really make a huge difference, because they'd always need English support to pass a bill concerning England anyway. On top of that, it is actually incredibly rare that the House of Commons passes a bill which only concerns England. It's happened less than 1% of the time since Scotland was devolved. Normally, a bill affects at least one other of the home nations, depending on the level of devolution they have. Usually Wales, as they have an historically closer legal system, since Henry VIII moved the Principality completely into English jurisdiction.

England doesn't need devolution because, by virtue of its size, representation and economic clout, it effectively holds a veto over every bill that passes through the House of Commons. England also doesn't need devolution because it already has an English Parliament. Since the time of the Plantagenets, the English Parliament has been held in London, on the banks of the Thames. It's still there. We call it the Palace of Westminster. It is an ancient, noble and proud institution which has served us well for centuries.

If we want the English Parliament to work better for the English, we could start by not packing it full of fucking tools every five years. But having English votes for English laws probably wouldn't be too disruptive. Unless you happen to be the Labour Party. Given that they have 40 MPs in Scotland, they'd have a significantly reduced majority in a future Government trying to pass England-only laws. But the answer to that is simple, isn't it? Get more English votes.