Milbrand rejects Cameron's gambit and calls for constitutional convention
When Britain’s Labour Party leader Ed Miliband insisted at the Labour Conference on Wednesday that no political party could lay claim to England’s national identity it was just the latest cry that Prime Minister David Cameron’s framing of Britain’s constitutional crisis as an “English Question” could not be resolved by “a stitch up in Westminster.”
Speaking outside Downing Street last Friday morning in the immediate aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, Cameron promised to honor commitments on further powers for the Scottish parliament, but added, “The question of English votes for English laws — the so-called West Lothian question — requires a decisive answer. So, just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland.”
The West Lothian question was famously posed in a November 1977 debate on devolution by West Lothian’s then MP Tam Dalyell, who asked, “For how long will English constituencies tolerate members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on British politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”
For William Hague, the Leader of the House of Commons tasked by Cameron with setting up a Cabinet Committee and drawing up plans for the new constitutional settlement, this is central to any discussions on Britain’s future. With further devolution to Scotland, he said, it would be “inconceivable” for Scottish MPs to vote on matters in England, when English ones cannot vote on matters in Scotland.
On the face of it, this might seem a modest proposal, though political realists might question the wisdom of limiting the influence of Scottish MPs in the aftermath of a referendum where the unsuccessful independence cause received a higher share of the vote than any party has received in a British general election since 1970. Others, though, see “English votes for English laws” as an incoherent idea that would destroy the Union the Scots so recently voted to preserve.
Vernon Bogdanor, for instance, who taught Cameron when the Prime Minister was at Oxford, describes his former student’s proposal as separatist and incoherent, liable to produce a UK majority — almost certainly Labour — for such matters as foreign affairs and economics, but an alternative majority for devolved matters. He notes in the Guardian that while some variant of English votes for English laws has been Conservative policy since Scotland voted for devolution in 1997, “It was not Conservative policy when Northern Ireland enjoyed devolution, between 1922 and 1972, and Northern Ireland MPs — predominantly unionist — deprived Labour of working majorities in 1950-1 and 1964-6.”
Miliband, then, can hardly be blamed at having been unwilling to accept Cameron’s proposals as though it was his patriotic duty to do so. Speaking at his party conference he called instead for devolution within England, with the House of Lords to become a “senate of the regions and nations,” saying that if Westminster was the problem, Westminster could not be the solution. “We’ve got to mobilize and harness the energy of people all across the country,” he said. “That’s why only a constitutional convention will do.”
What such a constitutional convention might achieve is hard to say. Ed West, deputy editor of the Catholic Herald, told Aleteia that “Britain’s constitutional problem is that England is too big for there to be a federation (it’s 85% of the UK’s population) but that there isn’t much appetite for regional parliaments in England.”
Explaining that England has been centralized since its older seven kingdoms were united in the 10th century, West conceded that “There is still some regional identity, and under the EU the English regions have reappeared, now nine of them. Although they do vaguely correspond to real historic regions with their own identities, I think they would have more appeal if they reverted to their historic names — the South-west would be Wessex, West Midlands would be Mercia, East Midlands Middle Anglia and eastern region East Anglia. Yorkshire, north-west and north-east would be Deira, Cumbria and Bernicia, the historic names for those regions.”
The historian Tom Holland, he added, “has likened it to Game of Thrones, because George RR Martin was clearly inspired by Anglo-Saxon England in naming his realm ‘the seven kingdoms.’”
Such a proposal may seem fanciful, but given the impracticality of “English votes for English laws,” some form of localized devolution may be the only way of addressing the English Question. Ed Rennie of the think tank ResPublica, which has proposed large-scale devolution of power to cities such as Manchester, told Aleteia, “Both the recent rise of Ukip and the 45 percent of Scots who voted on a high turn-out to leave Britain indicates the need for maximum devolution of the kind outlined in ResPublica’s Devo-Manc Report. Further devolution cannot just be to Scotland and Wales but to the counties, shires and cities throughout all of the United Kingdom, in other words wherever there is genuine demand for it.”
“If this 300 year union is to survive another 300 years,” Rennie added, “we need a participatory system where democratic authority is geographically close to people and there is complete transparency as to who is making decisions on people’s behalf. The clear need for subsidiarity to become a living reality is almost irrefutable.”
Francis Davis, a former UK cabinet advisor on faith and a member of the advisory group for the ecumenical think-tank Theos, believes England’s churches have a crucial part to play in realizing such subsidiarity. With churches typically closer to the ground than political parties, Davis maintains they are well positioned to facilitate conversation about political empowerment and identity. The best place to start this, he told Aleteia, is in the cathedrals, because of their convening power and their civic location.
Pointing to how churches themselves already have devolved governance, Davis said he would like to see bishops throughout England taking the initiative in this matter, Catholic and Anglican bishops in cities like Leeds, Liverpool, and Birmingham drawing together all of England’s faith communities without waiting for London to take the lead.
“The Church now has an opportunity to play catch-up on the English decentralization debate and then to take the moral lead by trying to build the new consensus,” he said. “It was the Churches that played a crucial part in facilitating the conversation that has taken place in Scotland, and the Churches have an even bigger opportunity to facilitate a wide-ranging conversation in England.”
Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.