May we have an early debate on who speaks for England and who should make decisions for England in an increasingly devolved United Kingdom?
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concern. We announced on Tuesday the establishment of the West Lothian commission, which will look at a range of options. For example, with issues that affect only England and Wales, one option would be that only English and Welsh MPs voted on such matters. In my view, that would be an appropriate rebalancing of the constitution to take account of the fact that in Scotland they have their own Parliament in which issues are resolved on which English MPs cannot vote. It seems somewhat perverse that Scottish MPs can vote on those very same issues when they apply only to England.
Do you see what George Young has done there? John Redwood has asked him a specific question, but instead of providing a straight Yes or No answer he obfuscates, avoids the question and moves on.
The West Lothian Commission is not about answering the question of who speaks for England. The West Lothian Commission is a collection of technocrats tasked with investigating changes to Parliamentary procedure in regard to MPs' voting privileges. It is not within its remit to recommend a Secretary of State for England, an English parliament elected on a mandate from the people of England, an English government, a First Minister for England or anything or anyone who might conceivably be understood to speak for England. It is not about finding a voice for England (though it would at least be a form of recognition of England).
The previous Government seemed to be of the belief that the UK Government spoke for England. George Howarth, a Government minister back in 1998 stated that "The Government as a whole speak for England".
That statement was met with an incredulous one word reply from Eric Forth: "Really?". Not an unreasonable response given that the Government of the time was top heavy with Scottish MPs.
Clearly the Government as a whole does not speak for England, and nor can it speak for England, but it is interesting to note that The Memorandum of Understanding does categorically state that individual UK Ministers do represent the interests of England:
This Memorandum sets out the understanding of, on the one hand, the United Kingdom Government, and on the other, the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers, and the Northern Ireland Executive Committee (“the devolved administrations”) of the principles that will underlie relations between them. The UK Government represents the UK interest in matters which are not devolved in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Policy responsibility for these non-devolved areas is within the exclusive responsibility of the relevant UK Ministers and Departments. It is recognised by these Ministers and Departments that, within the UK Government, the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for ensuring that the interests of those parts of the UK in non-devolved matters are properly represented and considered. Other UK Ministers and their departments represent the interests of England in all matters.
In other words, in the absence of devolution to England, and in the absence of a Secretary of State for England, it is up to individual Government ministers and their departments to 'speak for England'. In reality some of them can't even bring themselves to say the word England, let alone speak for it; and none of them even know what the interests of England are because the Government as a whole dare not ask us.
Redwood's question to Young follows from his blog article on Scottish and English Nationalism in which he says that David Cameron 'can take comfort from the fact that he can deny the English a vote on the Scottish question'. In my opinion the English should have no say at all in the Scottish question because that it is a matter for the Scottish people. However, if the Scottish people choose Independence or Devolution-Max, David Cameron will find himself unable to 'deny the English' any longer.
Redwood goes on to speculate upon what it is that English nationalists want:
The dream ticket for a modern English nationalist is a decision by Scotland to leave the UK, followed by the ending of membership of the EU because the member, the UK, no longer exists.
That may be true of English nationalists within the Conservative Party, but they are not what I would call modern English nationalists. I am an English nationalist because I believe that the nation (in this case the people of England) is entitled to its own state, and is entitled - is sovereign - to determine the basis of its government. Implicit in this is the understanding that ultimately it is the nation - the people - that are sovereign, not the state. And whilst I may find Scottish independence and an exit from the EU a democratic improvement on where we are now, that scenario is by no means a dream ticket. Do we want an English parliament on the basis that the other nations of the UK have all buggered off leaving the British parliament as an English parliament, full of the same cretins who previously took comfort in denying the English, but who now call themselves English? No, I want an English parliament to come about as a result of a popular vote in England, an affirmation of nationhood, democracy and popular sovereignty.
My dream ticket is for the people of England to demand their say and for the Government to listen to them. I don't think it's an unreasonable request. If that ever happens then I will feel that I have won, even if the people don't vote for an English parliament of some sort. If the British State were to submit itself to the judgement of the people of England we will have entered a new era, a post imperial era in which all the people of Britain, not just the Scots, are entitled, but not obliged, to be independent or in a Union of their choosing.
Who speaks for England? The people of England speak for England, but we have not spoken, yet.
Thomas Docherty, Labour MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, gets his Unionist knickers in a twist:
Several Members on both sides of the Committee have referred to England, the English Parliament and Britain. Let me gently remind the House that our nation state is the United Kingdom, and it is much more pertinent, particularly when discussing the issue of sovereignty, to get its name right.
The culprits? John Redwood, had the temerity to mention the 'English Parliament' when referring to events in the 17thC, and Kevan Jones recalled that 'for a long time northern France was part of England'.
Recently on John Redwood's Diary we've been treated to some of those 'cast iron' pledges that politicians like to come out with:
The Conservatives are – amongst other things – pledged to abolish ID cards, centralised computer projects, and English regional Assemblies and RDAs.
John Redwood's Diary, 7th March 2010
Good news – Conseravtives still want to abolish RDAs. RDAs have failed to narrow the gap between richer and poorer regions, have often got in the way of private sector led growth and development, have failed to deliver good transport systems and have been very bureaucratic. I look forward to their abolition, and hope we will save some money on all the bureaucracy.
John Redwood's Diary, 5th March 2010
Now we learn that the Conservatives have performed a u-turn on Regional Development Agencies:
THE Conservatives have admitted they will not scrap regional development agencies as they seek to end policy confusion just weeks before the General Election.
Two members of David Cameron's senior team, including former Chancellor Ken Clarke, were forced to send a memo to all Tory MPs in the hope of finally clarifying their proposals.
So having made a u-turn on English Votes on English Laws they've now done the same with Regional Development Agencies. Whatever next, "Tories propose elected regional assemblies"?
Why won't the bastard Labour or Conservative parties ask the people of England how we want to be governed; why are they so afraid of democracy?
David Cameron has given his strongest indication yet that Ken Clarke's solution will be in the next Conservative manifesto.
Mr Cameron backed the proposal drawn up by his party's democracy taskforce chaired by Ken Clarke, the former chancellor who is now shadow business secretary, to create an "English Grand Committee" at Westminster which would be closed to MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and which - apart from exceptional circumstances - could not be overruled by the Commons as a whole.
All MPs would be allowed to vote on England-only laws at their third and final reading but the new parliamentary arrangement would prevent any party using Scottish votes to block amendments made by English MPs. - Herald
It's a piss poor solution but from a Tory standpoint, not an English standpoint, it represents an advance on their past three manifestos which contained the unworkable "English Votes on English Laws".
Why have the Tories come up with such a convoluted technical solution to the West Lothian Question?
It's not about good governance, it's just a way of mitigating the WLQ and responding to an English sense of grievance, whilst engineering an inbuilt Conservative majority at certain stages of certain bills.
The thing to bear in mind - when considering banning Scottish MPs - is that it's an unconstitutional measure. Because the Barnett Formula allocates money to Scotland as a proportion of what is spent in England, any decision affecting the English budget (Health, Transport, Education) has a knock-on effect on the Scottish budget. In this respect there is no "English-only" legislation, at least not until the Barnett Formula is scrapped.
"No taxation without representation"
The Tories are being disingenuous because Scottish MPs have a constitutional right to vote on anything that determines how their constituents' taxes are spent - in other words political federalism requires fiscal federalism.
The Barnett Formula is key because it is the Barnett system that helps provide the social glue that underpins the welfare state and the common contract that we all (as Brits) have with one another. This is why the SNP want it scrapped even though it is biased in Scotland's favour. At the moment we can pretend that we have a 'National' Health Service (even though in terms of policy and delivery we actually have four national health services) because it is funded from a common pot - we all put in and we all take out. This principle of British solidarity "British funding for British institutions" - to paraphrase our prime minister - is endangered by fiscal federalism.
Importantly Ken Clarke's solution allows Scottish MPs to vote on the principle of the bill but not the detail, thereby preserving their say in a British veto over spending plans for England, and consequently the Scottish budget. This helps to sustain the veneer of "Britishness" of institutions like the NHS.
Parliament itself is probably even more important to our sense of British identity than the NHS. According to Prof Vernon Bogdanor to be British is "to wish to be represented in the House of Commons", and there will be many who claim that this Conservative policy will create "two classes of MP" by reducing Scottish MPs' involvement in the House of Commons. This is nonsense because thanks to devolution there are already two classes of MP: those that can vote on legislation pertaining to the health and education of their constituents and those that cannot.
The real problem is that highlighted by an unnamed Labour spokesman:
A Labour spokesman said a policy of English votes for English laws would destroy the relationship between the House of Commons and the executive, and "catastrophically undermine the Union".
The Conservative solution means that it would be illogical, but not unconstitutional, for Scottish MPs to have an executive say on matters that they cannot vote on, so logic dictates that the future UK Cabinet should be disproportionately English, with non-English MP only permitted executive responsibility in reserved areas; it also has the potential to set an English bloc of MPs against the UK Government, encouraging English MPs to speak for England against the executive that governs England, and; it introduces nationalism into the Union parliament, encouraging MPs to split along national lines instead of party lines.
None of this will be a huge problem if there's a large Conservative majority, but a Labour or coalition government, or a minority or weak Conservative administration, could well find themselves beset by contradictions between UK-interest and English-interest. For an English nationalist that's all well and good, and we can only hope and pray that it comes to pass.
How will the Conservative's enemies react to this policy?
I imagine that some English nationalists will be in favour, seeing it as a "slippery slope" to an English parliament, while others will regard it as a sop. The Labour and Lib Dem parties will be against it, but in the face of a Tory landslide they may well come to see it as a 'least damaging' solution. The SNP will be against it in public, but in private, because their MPs observe a self-denying ordinance, they'll be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of Scottish Labour MPs becomming side-lined and increasing irrelevant at Westminster. Previously the other parties could just ignore Tory grandstanding on the question of England, but no longer. Because the Tories are likely to form the next government we can expect an extremely heated debate on this, and also on Tory plans to abolish the RDAs and assemblies.
There will also be people inside the Conservative Party who object. There are those who object on a technical basis, people like Malcolm Rifkind who point out that this solution would have made no difference to the votes on tuition fees, foundation hospitals or fox hunting, and there will be others like David Davis, Roger Gale, John Redwood and Mark Field who will say that it doesn't go far enough.
Personally I agree with Alistair Carmichael of the Liberal Democrats:
"If [David Cameron] were sincere about trying to solve this problem, then he would look seriously at the creation of an English parliament or regional assemblies, whatever the English people themselves decide."
Pissing about with technical Westminster solutions to the question of England, whether it's 'English votes' or 'Regional Ministers' will not answer the English question. Only the people of England can answer the English Question and we deserve the opportunity to have the decisive say about how we are governed. England deserves a distinctly English voice, not only in parliament but in government also.
Time for a National Conversation.
I was disappointed and somewhat amused to notice that John Redwood had engaged in a spot of editing on Wednesday. Originally his NICE article read like so:
Because the NHS has such colossal power in its buying decisions drug companies have to throw everything in to selling to the single purchaser in the UK market. They are very disappointed if it does not work.
But it was changed to:
Because the NHS has such colossal power in its buying decisions drug companies have to throw everything in to selling to the single purchaser in the English market. They are very disappointed if it does not work.
I'm disappointed because John Redwood is one of the more analytical of MPs, and if he conflates England with the UK then what hope is there for the rest? Perhaps John could have a word in the ear of the people that write the Conservative website to correct the ambiguity of their news items and policy briefs (like this one which talks of 20,000 cases of pests in NHS hospitals but fails to mention that it's the English NHS).
Stop the pretence that there is one "National Health Service", there never was and never will be.