Thursday, 23 April 2015

Let's get behind an English Parliament on St George's Day

Back in September last year, after the result of the Scottish independence referendum had been announced, I wrote about an English Parliament. I've written about an English Parliament - or more specifically, about English devolution - a lot over the years.

I'm no academic but it's made me somewhat of an expert on the subject. I was a National Council member of the Campaign for an English Parliament for quite a long time and I advised Paul Nuttall on his Union for the Future policy proposal. When I had more time on my hands I even won awards for English political blogging and have been in most newspapers and on many national and local radio stations talking about English devolution.

I find the level of unintentional ignorance about devolution and an English Parliament incredibly frustrating. Hearing the same baseless arguments and incorrect claims about breaking up the union, increasing costs and more politicians does nothing for my blood pressure. So instead of addressing the nonsense I'm reading on social media in support of the unworkable, unacceptable constitutional fudge that is English Votes on English Laws in a piecemeal fashion, I've reposted below what I wrote last year ...

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Obviously I'm disappointed that the Scots threw away their once in a lifetime chance of independence yesterday but they've had their chance and wasted it. Now it’s our turn to sort out our country.

Cameron, Clegg and Miliband have promised the world to Scotland but they can't make good those promises without putting it to the British parliament and it’s not going to go smoothly. There are MPs demanding an English Parliament and others demanding English votes on English laws. Cameron has promised to ban Scottish MPs from voting on English laws (even though it won't work – more on that in a moment), Miliband has ruled out anything that will prevent Labour from using their Scottish MPs from passing laws in England and Clegg will only support the recommendation of the McKay Commission which was to change nothing except add an extra stage in the legislative process so English MPs can make their views known. Both Miliband and Clegg only want power devolved to "city regions".

It is an absolute disgrace that all three leaders of the old parties have happily promised to give the Scottish government extensive new powers but none of them will entertain the idea of an English Parliament. Cameron thinks we should accept a half-arsed fudge that won’t even work whilst Clegg and Miliband think that not only should we accept a half-arsed fudge but unless we live in a city or its suburbs we should accept the sum total of nothing.

English votes on English matters won’t work because anything that costs money will mean Scottish MPs can claim an interest in it because it affects the amount of money available for Scotland. It would change nothing other than dragging out the legislative process in England and delaying the inevitable implementation of an English Parliament unnecessarily. So as it’s got to happen and the British nationalists will try everything they can to prevent it from happening, let’s dispel the myths that they will be using to argue against it.

The most common argument is that it would increase the number of layers of government, increase the number of politicians and cost the taxpayer more money. This simply isn't the case. We currently have three layers of government in England – local government, House of Commons and House of Lords. By replacing the House of Lords with a federal British Parliament and replacing the House of Commons with an English Parliament we would still have three layers of government. By doing away with the House of Lords we would cut 775 politicians in one fell swoop. By reducing the number of British MPs from 650 to 200 given that three quarters of their job would be done by someone else we would cut another 450 politicians. An English Parliament would need about 400 members so that gives us a net reduction of 825 politicians. According to a paper written by Christopher Gill when he was a Conservative MP, that would save around £250m adjusted for inflation and MP pay rises. For the numerically challenged, here’s a helpful graph:

Another common argument is that England is too big and that it wouldn't really bring decision making any closer to the people. This is probably their strongest argument but it’s easily countered. In a geographical sense it doesn't bring decision making that much closer but democratically it does. At the moment MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can make decisions affecting only England which they have no say on in their own constituencies because it’s a devolved matter. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people have given their British MPs a mandate on reserved matters – those things that their own devolved governments don’t have any power over. British MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have no mandate to interfere with the NHS, environment, transport, etc. in England  An English Parliament would only have members elected in England to represent England. A committee of British MPs elected in England voting on British laws for England isn't the same as an English Parliament with members elected in England to make English laws for England. The sky fairy worshippers realised two thousand years ago that no man can serve two masters – it’s in the bible – so why can’t British nationalists see it?

Let me address the point about bringing decision making not being closer to the people at the same time as the vacuous argument that an English Parliament would break up the union and play into the hands of the EU at the same time. There is an absolutely valid argument that devolving decision making to a local level – be it regional, county or local authority – would improve accountability and decision making. I would envisage an English Parliament devolving power to a local level once the transfer of powers from the British government has taken place. It’s an important distinction that power is devolved from an English government to a local level and not from the British government because local government in England should be subordinate to the English government, not the British government. It’s also important that England has a national government to keep the country together in the face of constant pressure from the British establishment and the EU to break it up into regions and to be able to compete on the global stage in a way that a Birmingham city region or the north east of England couldn't.

Another argument that will be used against an English Parliament is that England is too big to have a federation with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They will argue that there are no examples of a federation working with one member bigger than all the others put together and that England will dominate the union because of its size. There are three key points to address in that argument. Firstly, it is correct that there are no examples of federations with a mismatch in size that you would see in the UK because it’s never been tried. That also means there are no examples of federations with such a mismatch in size not working. There was no evidence that eating mouldy bread could cure diseases or that if you sailed far enough east you would end up where you started rather than falling off the edge of the world until someone tried it. Secondly, the size of England is irrelevant when it comes to devolved matters because they’re devolved. If they were relevant to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland they wouldn't be devolved. Finally, England should dominate the union. Not to the detriment of the rest of the UK but the needs and priorities of 85% of the population should carry more weight than those of 15%.

One of the arguments that MPs like to use to dismiss an English Parliament – especially MPs elected in Scotland – is that it would create a two tier of MPs. They say that if Scottish MPs can’t vote on all legislation then they would be second class MPs and all MPs should be equal. But there is already a two tier system – British MPs elected in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can’t vote on devolved matters in their own constituencies, only in England. MPs elected in England can vote on all legislation in their own constituencies, including things that are devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

English vote on English laws simply cannot work and the only way to address the inequality that seriously threatens the union is to create a devolved English Parliament with at least the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. Why should we accept an inadequate, unworkable compromise instead of equality?

The English Commonwealth campaign has set up a petition for an English Constitutional Convention to let the people of England determine the form of government best suited to their needs. I would strongly urge you to sign it.