Options for an English Parliament: lessons from existing decentralised states


Last year the Constitution Unit began work on a project exploring the options for an English Parliament. As part of this research we are examining arrangements in other decentralised states, particularly those which are federal, to draw out lessons for the design of political institutions were an English Parliament to be established. Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell summarise some early findings.

Last autumn we began work on a research project exploring the options for an English Parliament. As outlined in a previous blog post, calls for an English Parliament have long existed, but frequently been dismissed by academics and mainstream politicians. However, in recent years the salience of questions concerning England’s constitutional status has increased and as a result the idea has gained new supporters. Despite this no detailed analysis of the design options for an English Parliament – including key questions such as its possible powers, structure and location – has previously been undertaken. We are aiming to close this gap and plan to publish a report in late 2017.

As part of our research we are examining constitutional arrangements in existing decentralised states, including those which are federal. In this blog post we present some early findings from a survey of arrangements in the 22 states that are listed as federations by the Forum of Federations. The establishment of an English Parliament would not necessarily imply a federal arrangement for the UK, but certainly something like it – with separate legislative institutions for the four historic nations. When drawing out comparative lessons, looking at existing federal states is therefore an obvious place to start.

What are federations and when are they established?

The term federalism covers a wide range of political systems in which legislative powers are divided between state and sub-state levels (see Dardanelli and Kincaid, 2016, for further discussion of the definition). Among the 22 federations listed by the Forum of Federations there are 11 parliamentary systems, nine presidential or semi-presidential systems and two that fall into none of these categories. Even within these categories there is great variation in institutional structures.

The classic early federations – the United States, Australia and Canada, for example – were comprised of existing autonomous political systems. ‘Coming together’ federations of this type remain more numerous than ‘holding together’ federations formed from previously unitary states (for discussion of this distinction see Stepan, 1999). However, the latter category has grown in the post-1945 period. Examples of ‘holding together’ federations include Belgium and India, whilst Spain – though not strictly a federation – has moved in an increasingly federal direction. Were it to move in the direction of a more federal structure the UK would not, therefore, be out of step with developments elsewhere.

Number and relative size of component parts

Among existing federations there is great variation in the number of sub-state units: at one end of the spectrum Bosnia and Herzegovina has just two, at the other Russia has 85. These units are often of considerably different sizes. The archetypal example of this is again the USA, which includes states with populations varying from California (approximately 39 million) to Wyoming (approximately 500,000). Similarly extreme variations exist in, for example, Australia, Canada and Germany.

The international evidence therefore suggests that a successful decentralised state does not require parts of even roughly equal sizes. Nonetheless, England’s size as a proportion of the UK as a whole would make a more ‘federalised’ UK in which there were four component parts – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – unusual in comparative perspective. As the table below shows, England would dominate in population terms more than any single unit dominates any existing federation. Only Bosnia and Herzegovina comes close, but it has just two component parts. This severe asymmetry has often been emphasised by critics of the English Parliament idea, and comparative experience suggests that it would need particularly careful consideration.


All data sourced from latest available estimates on https://www.citypopulation.de/, last accessed 3 February 2017. Note that the Forum of Federations’ list excludes very small federations. It also excludes South Sudan, where federal institutions are not yet fully established.

Federal level institutions

Every major federal system, with the single exception of Iraq, includes features at the federal level which are intended to prevent the parts of the federation with larger populations from becoming dominant. In some cases, such as the United States, one chamber of the federal legislature has an equal number of representatives of each state, regardless of population size. More often, as in Canada and Germany, states with larger populations are deliberately under-represented in at least one chamber. Many have suggested that were an English Parliament established the House of Lords should be transformed into a territorial chamber, to explicitly tie the different component parts of the UK together. As we have seen international experience suggests that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be purposefully ‘overrepresented’ in such an arrangement, in order to counter English dominance. But that could be highly controversial.

Overall, establishment of an English Parliament would create significant pressure to reduce the size of the UK parliament – which is already large by international standards. One radical way of achieving that would simply be to move from two chambers to one. However, this presents something of a conundrum as federalism is closely associated with bicameralism. Of the 22 federal states listed above, all but Iraq, Nepal, the UAE and Venezuela have two legislative chambers at the national level.

A dual mandate?

In our previous blog we noted that there are two broad models supported by advocates of an English Parliament. Under the first, favoured by the Campaign for an English Parliament, a separately elected institution would be established to mirror the Scottish Parliament. Under the second model, favoured by Conservative MP John Redwood among others, the English Parliament would be composed of members of the House of Commons that represent English constituencies holding a dual mandate.

We have found no current example of a dual mandate of this type, so the latter approach would be relatively innovative. There is, however, a historical precedent for the ‘dual mandate’ model from Belgium, where between 1970 and 1995 – a period of transition from a unitary to a federal state – the regional parliaments in Flanders and Wallonia were composed of members of the federal legislature. Following a major reform in 1993 these are now directly elected and simultaneous membership of national and regional legislatures is prohibited by the Constitution.


Among advocates of a separately elected English Parliament there is a wide range of different views on where it should be located. Whilst some propose locations outside London – Lichfield and York, for example – others argue that it should meet in London, England’s capital city as well as the UK’s. Among this latter group some propose that the English Parliament should be located in the Palace of Westminster, either in place of the UK parliament or alongside it.

Our research has found no example of an existing federation where a sub-state legislature meets in the same building as the federal legislature. In fact, in the majority of cases the federal parliament is not even located in the same city as the legislature of the federation’s largest part. More commonly the federal parliament is located in one of the smaller states or, as in Australia, Brazil and the USA, in a special capital district. This raises the question of whether, in the event of an English Parliament being established, it should actually be the UK parliament that is located outside London.

Closing thoughts

This research is still at an early stage. The findings reported here do not cover all of the areas on which international experience may be instructive. Also clearly relevant, for example, are the division of competences and financial arrangements in existing federations and other devolved states. Examining such arrangements, alongside analysing existing devolution arrangements in the UK and the responses to our public consultation (which recently closed), will continue to feed into our consideration of options for an English Parliament. Further updates on the progress of our research will be posted on this blog over the coming months.

About the authors

Jack Sheldon is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, working on the Options for an English Parliament project. He is also the editor of the Constitution Unit newsletter and blog.

Professor Meg Russell is the Director of the Constitution Unit. 

The authors are very grateful to Dominic Walsh, who carried out much of the research for this blog post whilst a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit from October to December 2016.

3 thoughts on “Options for an English Parliament: lessons from existing decentralised states

  1. I hope this report is not going down the same old route that a few before have, on mainly concentrating on how an English parliament will affect the Celtic nations, or claiming that Celtic MPs will be second class. One previous report was done by a commission of about 90% Celtic academics not surprisingly it said there was no problem with non-representative MPs and Lords voting, and to continue with the let them eat cake attitude towards democracy for the people of England.

    Any report must solely focus on the fact England like any nation should have the right of self-determination, and democracy, and not look for problems that are not there. An English parliament we not affect the day to day matters of the Scottish parliament, no one is saying that Scottish MPs should come back to their nation and sit in the Scottish parliament.

  2. Pingback: Is a Federal United Kingdom Possible? – Toque

  3. I was too late to make a submission but I hope I can respond to your update. When I visited Robert Hazell at the CU more than a decade ago he raised the problem of the ‘size’of England in any federal arrangement, pointing that there was no comparable example (which your research now demonstrates). Can I ask if there any examples of a successful Union comprising one ‘over-sized’ countries and several much smaller ones? While it is certainly true that England dominates the Union in terms of population, it also manages to dominate the Union politically by combining the British and English central governments. Restricting an English Parliament to domestic matters would surely lessen England’s political domination of the UK. It is significant that leading Unionist politicians from all parties in England shrink from the idea of becoming PM ‘just of England’ (David Cameron).

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