Sunday, September 21, 2014

The English question and the whale in the bathtub

The West Lothian question should not trouble a Conservative over much. Why overturn a constitutional arrangement that works in the name of abstract principles like ‘fairness’ or ‘justice’? That’s the sort of folly that Liberals and Radicals go in for.

But David Cameron had to act on it and act quickly. Because today large parts of the Conservative Party are hardly Conservative at all. The brighter among them do care about abstract principles, but most are Angry White Men who believe the disappointments of their lives and the failings of British society are the fault of Europe or the Scots or some other group institution or group.

It is from this latter group that most Conservative activists and increasing numbers of their backbench MPs are drawn. Such people believe the Scots already get more than their fair share from the English taxpayer – hence the imperative on Cameron to be seen to offer the English something once he had decided to issue a pledge in an attempt to buy off the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum.

And if he hadn’t acted, not only would his own party have been in revolt against him, Nigel Farage would likely have emerged as the champion of the disaffected English.

So it looks as if we are to have English votes for English laws. In theory this is a fair reform, but the practical problems are that it will either make no difference (that would be the situation in most parliaments) or that it would lead to the UK being governed by one party and England by another and prove to be unworkable.

So, much as the idea of an English parliament meeting in York appeals, I cannot see it as a sensible option. Nor am I attracted by the idea of artificial English regions, each with its own assembly and capital.

I agonised about these problems in a book review in Liberal Democrat News a few years ago:
What to do about England in the new devolved United Kingdom is a question that will not go away. A Useful Fiction quotes Anthony King’s description of the country under the current settlement as “a huge whale in a small bathtub”, and without the counterbalance that the new parliaments offer in Scotland and Wales, it is England that has suffered most from the demise of local democracy. 
The traditional Liberal answer is to call for assemblies to be set up in the English regions, but I do not find this attractive. There are problems on agreeing where the boundaries should be drawn and the inconvenient fact that on the only occasion when plans for an assembly were put to the public (in the North East in 2004), they were voted down decisively. 
More than that, the regional system Labour has set up acts like a shadow, unelected variety of local government that makes it easier for Whitehall to force new infrastructure projects through in the force of popular opposition.
Perhaps the real problem is that English regional government appeals to those who do not feel comfortable with Englishness at all. Many on the liberal-left who are indulgent to Celtic nationalism still fear that England is too big and too irredeemably Tory to be allowed a modern constitutional form. They would rather see English identity hobbled by a collection of smaller assemblies.
If we are not to have an English parliament or a comprehensive system of regional government, then we shall have to learn to live with a looser solution where large cities and counties that want more power are given it and those that do not continue under a regime much like the one that exists at present. At the very least, we are going to have to give up the expression ‘postcode lottery’.

And as for coming to terms with Englishness, I commend a Spectator article by Nick Cohen:
The danger for Labour is that it could find itself portrayed as the enemy of the English. It is a novel position for the party. Most Labour politicians are wary of the left intelligentsia – and vice versa – and know the dangers of the electorate thinking them unpatriotic. But patriotism is changing. It is not enough for a political party to show that it loves Britain; it has to show that it loves each of its constituent parts. For Labour, the only national party with strong roots in England, Wales and Scotland, the balkanisation of Britain, represents a moment of danger. 
The question now is no longer: does Labour love Britain? But does Labour love England? Maybe not enough to allow fair treatment for the English electorate.  Labour is giving every indication that it will not accept English votes for English laws. It wants to devolve more powers to English cities and regions, as do the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.  But it is not contemplating a federal Britain, and is refusing to cooperate with David Cameron’s attempts to answer the English question. 
I sympathise with its reasons. I don’t want to see Welsh and Scottish politicians excluded from English life, not least because they are the men and women most likely to forward left wing interests. I hate the prospect of the petty, almost racist, populism of the Scottish nationalists spreading south. But my Britain is going or gone. The Labour Party cannot expect others to stand by an archaic system, rigged for the left’s benefit.
Who will benefit from the new system born from Salmond’s populism and the panic of the leaders of the UK parties in the face of it remains to be seen. But that is the battle we must now fight.


iain said...

I fear the problem is that people are looking for one standard solution for the whole of England. It may well be that we start with a range of different solutions. You claim that Regional boundaries aren't agreed, the same is true of City Regions- one example is Southport being included in Liverpool.
A proper constitutional convention may well develop solutions able to take powers similar to The Scots parliament.

Phil Beesley said...

Jonathan's post mentions two omnipresents of UK political debate: "postcode lottery" and chip-on-shoulder ranters. And there is always greener grass in another field.

"Postcode lotteries" are what you get when services are different; one service is different from the other. Science requires difference to establish betterness; smart people copy best practice when it is proven; less smart people catch up more slowly, but they may be better at something else. Or maybe they are smarter than the smart operator.

Never try to placate a chip-on-shoulder ranter. They always think more about their random topic than you would ever wish to know.