Devolution and constitutional reform: Is it time to restore the Kingdoms?

Much has been said in the aftermath of Scotland’s “No” to independence about ensuring that the English get a fair deal in any further devolution package. But most of what has been said has ignored the basic question about what our democratic institutions are for. And ‘solutions’ are being put forward without any real debate on the consequences. To make matters worse, both the Conservatives and Labour appear to be arguing to advance their own political interests rather than ensuring that the English have an effective system of self-government.

David Cameron was quick to come out on Friday morning to argue for English Votes for English Laws. And he has announced a quick timescale for partial delivery – I say partial delivery because rushing through to a second reading debate before the end of the current Parliament is a false meaningless timetable – when the Parliament is dissolved for next year’s General Election, any legislation that has not completed the parliamentary process will fall. So why the rush?

The simple solution being put forward (and the solution that is implied in David Cameron’s comments) is that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs would not be able to vote in Parliament on matters that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is no solution at all. It may serve as a short-term solution to the “West Lothian Question” but it creates more problems than it solves.

Most serious of these, is the democratic deficit for an “English government” – you could quite easily end up with a situation where the UK government is headed by one party (when Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs are included) but that another party would be the lead party if only English MPs are taken into account. This means that we would end up with a stalled parliament as the Government of the day would not be able to pass any English-only legislation. Alternatively, we would end up with two governments – A UK government led by one party; and an English government led by another. And that would be chaos.

Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland isn’t solved by giving MPs from those areas special responsibilities for voting on legislation in those areas – they all have their own parliamentary assembly. On this basis, the fairest solution would a separate English parliament with the UK Parliament responsible only for non-devolved matters. This, however, poses two problems: firstly, there are different levels of devolution in the different nations. The UK Parliament would be responsible for some matters in Wales but not in Scotland; and for some matters in Scotland but not in Northern Ireland; and for some matters in Northern Ireland but not in England. Once again, chaos.

But secondly (and potentially the biggest problem) is one of size: England constitutes something like 90 per cent of the UK population. An English Parliament would overshadow the other national parliaments and assemblies and pose a threat to the supremacy of the UK Parliament. And a Parliament of that size wouldn’t bring decision making any closer to the regions. People in Northumberland are likely to feel as far removed from “an English Parliament at Shrewsbury” as one politician described it last week; as they currently do from the Westminster Parliament – especially as the English parliament would be serving such a large proportion of the people currently served by the Westminster Parliament.

Labour have suggested that they will oppose any constitutional reform leading to English Votes for English People. As I’ve just explained, there are many reasons to do so; but their concern appears to be more about a loss of power at Westminster if their Scottish and Wales MPs no longer counted.

Labour’s model of devolved power in England is confused and ill-thought-through. And when it was put to the people in local referenda they mostly rejected it. In some cases they said yes, saw what it was like in practice, and then said no. There are two problems with Labour’s models (and the coalition government’s attempts at local government reform). These are to do with the size of the unit of government and the proposed powers. In effect, they were more about reforming local government than about devolving powers.

The first solution was locally elected mayors; and in all the local referendum campaigns on the issue, the success of the London Mayor was highlighted by pro-campaigners. But the London Mayoral system hasn’t been proposed anywhere else. In London, the Mayor, and the Assembly, have responsibility for a very large area that includes 33 local council elections. What was offered – and mostly rejected – in parts of England was for the power currently shared by a number of councillors in a local authority to be vested in a single person. The populous have shown time and time again that they do not want this (that didn’t stop the government imposing the same principle when they replaced Police Authorities with Police and Crime Commissioners – the public responded by not responding. Or voting).

The second solution – and current flavour of the month – is City Regions. A proposed city region for Liverpool would include the local authority areas of Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral. This is much more like the London model and much more likely to work than single authority mayors. But it is, effectively, simply a re-organisation of local government. It has no devolved powers and the elected representatives in the city regions will have no responsibility for issues currently devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And nor could they – they’re far too small.

The Solution

The first thing that needs to happen is to recognise what is good about a United Kingdom – what is it that makes Britain Great? What does Westminster do that can’t be done at a devolved level?

It may sound obvious – somewhat trite – to say foreign policy and defence; but actually these are areas where Britain can – and should – be proud. Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office is the envy of the world. Nobody does diplomacy like Britain does diplomacy. Retaining the strong diplomatic service is essential. Likewise with our armed forces: we have much pride in the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the British Army – and the smaller specialist military units – and so we should. There are other areas which needs a UK-wide approach. Financial services and regulation (not that our bankers and financiers are anywhere near as respected as our diplomats and armed forces). There could be other areas too. The point is that we need a national UK-wide Parliament and we need to know what areas are the responsibility of that Parliament.

Then, a consistent approach needs to be adopted to devolution: if a matter can be devolved to the Scottish Parliament then it can also be devolved to the Welsh Assembly and also the Northern Ireland Assembly (even accepting for the unusual political settlement behind the creation of that Assembly). And the same areas of responsibility should be devolved to relevant body in England. But what should that body be?

In my view, English Votes for English People (simply excluding MPs from devolved nations from votes on issues devolved to those nations) is not the answer: it would lead to constitutional crises when the UK government and the “English Government” were led by different parties – you could even end up with three different “governments” – a UK Parliament, an “English Parliament” and an “English and Welsh Parliament” – potentially led by three different political parties.

Nor is an English Parliament the answer: it would be too large, too unwieldy, and, eventually, it could end up threatening the supremacy of the UK Parliament. It would also be unbalanced, with its decisions unwittingly having an effect on the smaller devolved nations.

In contrast, city regions are too small and wouldn’t work across England. Some regions are too dispersed to benefit from the system (and don’t have large cities to sustain them like in Liverpool). They could end up in competition with neighbours that are too close (a Liverpool City Region and a Manchester City Region are likely to be competing for jobs, businesses and investment rather than working together for the wider North West). And some areas that might make up a city region might already feel themselves to be in competition within the city region.

Take the West Midlands as an example. What would a Birmingham City Region look like? Would it replicate the old West Midlands County (Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell and Coventry) or would it also include the counties that make up the West Midlands region (Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire). The people of Walsall, Sandwell and Dudley are generally against being included in a Birmingham City Region – what would it mean for the Black Country identity? And in a wider region, what about people in places like Cannock? There is a fear by people in smaller and more rural areas that they would be overlooked in such regions by the larger representation from the bigger cities.

And anyway, city regions are a way of organising local government. They are not about devolved powers, law making abilities, or a level of financial independence from Whitehall.

The solution, in my mind, is to create a series of devolved parliaments or assemblies along the lines of the old Anglo Saxon kingdoms (I’m not suggesting restoring the Saxon monarchies – simply using the geographic areas). These would have the benefit of being small enough not to challenge Westminster or the other devolved parliaments; but large enough to be effective organisations for receiving devolved powers.

They would also be balanced – not just with the existing devolved parliaments and assemblies; but also within themselves. In Mercia, for example, Birmingham wouldn’t be able to dominate smaller areas. Not simply because there would be other larger areas, including Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Coventry); but also there would be a large number of rural and suburban areas that means the voice of the places like Cannock or bigger areas like Hereford, Worcester or Stafford, would carry more weight than in the smaller city regions.

The UK, governed by a strong Westminster Parliament, but with a consistent set of devolved powers dealt with by parliaments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, may – and I stress: may – be a workable solution to the West Lothian question. It may work, it may not. But it is an idea worthy of consideration.

Unfortunately, there will be no time for consideration because of the artificially speedy timetable announced by David Cameron. What is needed is a constitutional convention: not to throw the issue into the long grass; but so that the issues can be carefully considered by a panel without party political interests; and that a fully thought out and competent constitutional solution can be brought forward.

In the meantime, it would be helpful if Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland MPs observed a self-denying ordinance, like the SNP, that says that they will not vote on matters that are wholly devolved in their areas. But that can only ever be a stop-gap until constitutional reform takes place. But there is no point whatsoever, other than party political point scoring, to pursue change at the speed that would see a second reading debate before the General Election; because, at that point, all legislation in the Parliament falls.

And at the same time, the constitutional convention should look at local as well as national governments. The local government system in England – and probably throughout the UK – is costly, fragmented, inefficient, duplicated, unrepresentative, wasteful and uncontrollable. They are not needed and should be abolished. We won’t miss them.

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