The Constitution Unit conducted a three-year research project into the English Question, with a team of ten people led by Robert Hazell. This blog post summarises their main findings and conclusions.
For a more concise introduction to the English Question and the points discussed here, see Robert Hazell’s “Bluffer’s guide“.
For their book, see Robert Hazell (ed), The English Question (Manchester University Press, 2005).
1 The English Question comprises two broad questions
The English Question is not a single question, but a general heading for a whole series of questions about the government of England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a stronger political voice as a result of their elected legislatures, which have all been given greater powers. England and the English regions risk losing out in the distribution of government funds, in competition for inward investment, in making English laws. For the first 15 years of devolution the English did not seem to care. Polls showed they were quite content for the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish to have devolution, but did not want any for themselves. That has changed following the Scottish independence referendum and the proposal to grant Scotland further powers. Politicians have rekindled the debate about English votes on English laws; but it is not clear whether the English want a stronger political voice, or simply fair treatment on issues like the territorial distribution of funding.
Answers to the English Question vary because they are responses to different versions of the question. If the aim is to give England a separate political voice, to rebalance the louder political voices now accorded to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, then solutions are English votes on English laws, or an English Parliament. But if the aim is devolution within England, breaking the excessive domination of the central government in London, then the solutions include elected regional assemblies, city regions, stronger local government, elected mayors. Conservatives tend to favour the first set of solutions, and Labour the second (but with exceptions on both sides). If they appear to be talking past each other, it is because they are answering different versions of the question.
2 Devolution to England
2.1 An English Parliament
An English Parliament would appear to be a neat solution to the fundamental asymmetry in the devolution arrangements. It would create a federation of the four historic nations of the UK, each with its own parliament enjoying significant devolved powers. It is the solution propounded by the Campaign for an English Parliament, a pressure group founded in the 1990s. But it is one thing to create such a federation, quite another to make it work. England, with four-fifths of the population, would be hugely dominant. No federation in the world has operated successfully where one of the units is so large. The English Parliament would become a rival to the Westminster Parliament, and in time could be seen as equally remote. With 500 or so politicians, it could also be seen as an expensive luxury: as John Major used to say, ‘If the answer is more politicians, you may be asking the wrong question’. Few heavyweight politicians have espoused a separate English Parliament; perhaps because of this, public support remains low and shows little sign of increasing. The main alternative would be to create an English parliament within the Westminster parliament; which might develop from introducing English votes on English laws.
2.2 English votes on English laws
In contrast, English votes on English laws does command political support, especially amongst Conservatives, and considerable public support. Polling data consistently show that between 50 and 60 per cent of people in England agree that Scottish MPs should no longer be allowed to vote on English laws. It seems only logical and fair, now that English MPs can no longer vote on matters devolved to Scotland. Even a majority of Scots support restricting the voting rights of Scottish MPs in this way. But the difficulties of implementing such a policy are considerable, at both a technical and political level.
The first technical difficulty is identifying those English laws on which only English MPs would be allowed to vote. The territorial extent clauses in Westminster statutes typically extend to the UK, Great Britain, or England and Wales. Many statutes vary in their territorial application in different parts of the Act. The McKay Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons (2013) recommended stronger signposting about territorial extent in the long title and Explanatory Notes on bills, but did not suggest bills should be recast so that more bills applied only to England, or England and Wales. So the Speaker would need to identify in advance those clauses or amendments that applied only to England (or England and Wales).
The second technical difficulty is to decide at what stages in the legislative process only English (or English and Welsh) MPs would be allowed to vote. The different bodies which have considered this issue (Procedure Committee 1999, Norton Commission 2000, Conservative Democracy Task Force 2008, McKay Commission 2013) have all proposed different variations for an English Grand Committee or English only votes at Second Reading, Committee stage and Report stage of bills. The McKay Commission proposed a bewildering range of different possibilities in Part 6 and Annex D of its report. But all these bodies agreed that on Third Reading all MPs should be entitled to vote, so that the whole House could vote down legislation approved by an England-only forum. They hoped this would be a rare event, because the government would risk paying a high price electorally for overriding English opinion in this way.
That brings us to the political difficulties. Proponents of English votes on English laws tend to underestimate what a huge change would be involved. It would create different classes of MP, ending the traditional reciprocity whereby all members can vote on all matters. It could lead to the creation of a parliament within a parliament. And after close-fought elections, the UK government might not command a majority for its English business, leading to political instability. The issue would become critical if after the next election Labour forms a government with a narrow majority (or a minority government) which depends on Scottish and Welsh MPs to get its legislation through.
There would be talk of a constitutional crisis; but whether in reality it triggered a crisis would depend on the conduct of the government and the opposition, and the response of the media and public opinion in England. If the government behaved in a majoritarian way, using the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs to force controversial measures on the English, it would be strongly criticised in the media, and risk losing support in England at the next election. That will happen whether or not procedures have been introduced for English votes on English laws. A special procedure would make it more transparent if English MPs are being overridden, but (under all the schemes described above) could not prevent it. As the McKay Commission emphasised, the ultimate checks are political, not procedural. A Labour government in a parliament with a Conservative majority in England would have to moderate its approach, in effect governing England as a minority government, and seeking cross-party support for its English legislation, or risk electoral unpopularity in middle England at the next election. That would require a shift from the traditional adversarial culture at Westminster to a more consensual, European way of doing politics; but as Alex Salmond demonstrated in Scotland from 2007 to 2011, minority governments can achieve a lot, so long as they do not seek to govern in a majoritarian way.
2.3 Two other possible answers to English votes on English laws
What gives English votes on English laws its political edge is the mismatch between territorial balance and party balance at Westminster, with Labour being disproportionately overrepresented in Scotland and Wales. Two other possible solutions have been advocated that would help correct this mismatch. The first would be to reduce the number of Scottish and Welsh MPs to reflect their reduced role at Westminster after devolution, as the Conservatives proposed in their 2005 manifesto. They were building on the precedent set during the Northern Ireland parliament during 1922-72, when the number of Northern Ireland MPs was reduced to twelve, compared with their current representation of eighteen. If a similar discount of one-third were applied to Scottish and Welsh representation, Scottish representation would be reduced to around 40 MPs at Westminster, and Welsh representation to around 22. This would not eliminate the possibility of Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on English laws, but it would further reduce the likelihood of their votes being able to tip the balance. It has been criticised on the basis that if Scotland and Wales had a reduced number of MPs, they would still be overrepresented on English matters, but underrepresented on UK-wide matters.
The second solution is a more proportional voting system. The first-past-the-post voting system used for Westminster elections offers a bonus to parties whose support is geographically concentrated and so tends to exaggerate the political differences between England and Scotland and Wales. A more proportional system would help to reduce Labour’s dominance in Scotland and Wales and so reduce the differences between its level of political representation there and in England.
3 Devolution within England
3.1 Elected regional assemblies
The next four sections consider four different ways of decentralising government within England. None of these options give England as such a louder political voice; they would give greater voice to its regions and/or local authorities. In the interests of space the treatment will be brief. Elected regional assemblies have been supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but opposed by the Conservatives and the business community. The policy was put to the test in the referendum in the North East in 2004, when John Prescott’s proposals for an elected regional assembly were decisively rejected by four to one. The No campaign had argued that the assembly would mean more politicians, more bureaucracy, more council tax; and its supporters found it hard to explain the utility of an assembly with a purely strategic role and no substantive powers.
Elected regional assemblies are clearly dead for the time being; but not necessarily for ever. In 1979 the people of Wales voted by four to one against the Labour government’s plans for a Welsh Assembly, but in 1997 they narrowly reversed their decision, and the Assembly has since become firmly established. Such a volte-face seems less likely with regional government in England; it may depend on how city regions and other regional structures develop in future, and whether in time calls emerge again to democratise the new regional tier.
3.2 City regions
The defeat of proposals for elected regional assemblies saw a revival of interest in city regions. The lead has come from northern cities, with Greater Manchester the best example of local authorities building on local enterprise partnerships to develop shared economic and transport strategies, and to pool investment funds with contributions from central government to ensure that economic growth and social development go hand in hand. But city regions are at best a thin patchwork. The collaborative revolution has not spread beyond the great northern cities to the south and the shires. Government has not delivered on the promise of the Heseltine review (2013) and devolved substantial new pooled budgets to combined authorities. And the governance structures of city regions are opaque and unaccountable: they are beyond the comprehension of ordinary citizens.
3.3 Elected Mayors
Elected Mayors are also a thin patchwork. Of the 353 local authorities in England, only 15 have adopted a directly elected Mayor. A dozen did so soon after the Local Government Act 2000, but in none of the great cities save for London. When a second attempt was made under the Localism Act 2011, only three cities followed suit: Liverpool, Leicester and Bristol. Local councillors are generally opposed to elected mayors, and they are unlikely to spread more widely unless central government is willing to impose them.
3.4 Strengthening local government
The main alternative to regions as a policy solution for excessive centralisation is to restore powers and functions to local government. Local government has increasingly become the creature of central government. Successive reorganisations have left it battered and demoralised. There is no shortage of proposals for strengthening local government; what is lacking is any evidence of political will in central government to let go. Under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition as under New Labour, local government dances to central government’s tune. Freedoms are to be earned, not given. There is little recognition of local government as a sphere of government in its own right, and little sign of restoring the powers and functions lost to local government over the past 30 years.
Local authorities have little discretion over their services, income or expenditure. Council tax provides only 15 per cent of their total revenue, with the remainder largely coming in central government grants tied to specific purposes. Without a fundamental change in local government finance, they will never regain their former freedoms.
Since the English Question is not a single question, it does not require a single answer. What is most likely to be offered is a combination of answers. At Westminster there may be gradual experimentation with English votes on English laws. At the next boundary review the question will be raised of reducing the number of Scottish and Welsh MPs; at the least, Welsh overrepresentation will be corrected (Wales has 40 MPs, when pro rata to England and Scotland she should have only 33). And in decentralising the government of England, there is likely to be further progress on city regions and combined authorities, and a few more elected mayors; but any significant strengthening of local government, or elected regional assemblies both seem a long way off.
Robert Hazell is Professor of British Politics and Government & Director of the Constitution Unit.