The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

The English Question: A Bluffer’s Guide

14th October 2014

Professor Robert Hazell offers a quick introduction to all the different answers to the English Question. A more detailed explanation of the reasoning behind the answers can be viewed here

Devolution to Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland throws up related questions about the government of England. These fall into two broad kinds: giving England a stronger political voice; and devolving power within England.

To rebalance the Union, England could find a stronger political voice through an English Parliament, or English votes on English laws.

To devolve power within England, possible solutions include: regional government; city regions; stronger local government; elected mayors.

The Conservatives have focused on rebalancing the Union, arguing for English votes on English laws. They are opposed to regional government. Labour when in government focused on devolving power within England, strengthening the regional tier, but failed in their attempt to introduce elected regional assemblies.

An English Parliament would create a federation of the four historic nations of the UK. Such a federation could not work because England would be too dominant. An English Parliament would be a rival to Westminster, and could come to be seen as just as remote. Few heavyweight politicians have espoused it, and support for the idea remains flat.

English votes on English laws does command mass support. It seems only logical and fair. The McKay Commission recommended English-only votes at the earlier stages of legislation, but subject to override by the whole House at later stages. Objections are that it would create two classes of MP, a parliament within a parliament, and could lead to political instability. If the next election delivers a Labour government for the UK but a Conservative majority within England, Labour would have to govern England as a minority government, requiring cross-party support for its English legislation.

Two partial solutions have been suggested to correct the underlying problem. The first would be to reduce the number of Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, to reflect their reduced role. This happened under the Stormont Parliament of 1922-72, when Northern Irish representation was reduced by a third. The second would be proportional representation, which would help reduce Labour’s exaggerated representation in Scotland and Wales, and might increase their representation in England.

Most of the solutions to devolve more power within England are feasible, but likely to develop in fragmented fashion, if at all. All parties pay lip service to strengthening local government, but none support it when in government. Elected regional assemblies are dead for the time being. Manchester is a pioneer of city regions, but with few other examples. No major city has chosen an elected mayor outside London, Liverpool and Bristol.

The English Question does not demand a single answer. What seems most likely to happen is gradual experimentation at Westminster with English votes on English laws, coupled with further experiments in decentralisation. These could include encouragement of city regions to promote greater cooperation between local authorities; a further push for elected mayors; reversal of some of the restrictions on local government.

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