Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

On an English Parliament

My last post has been hijacked by the rather fervent supporters of the concept of an English Parliament to the extent that it’s impossible to discuss what it was really about – i.e. local/regional vs national identities.

For non-Brits, a quick overview…

The Campaign for an English Parliament and its political offshoot the English Democrats Party are English nationalist organisations that have arisen since devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly.

The argument is fair enough – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now have sole control over various areas of domestic policy (e.g. health, education), but in those same areas, England is still governed by the parliament of the United Kingdom in Westminster – which contains Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs. This means that we have a situation whereby a majority of English MPs could oppose a policy (to do with, say, health) that would affect *only* England – yet the government could pass that policy anyway with the assistance of MPs from other parts of the United Kingdom, even though it would not take effect in their own constituencies.

It is a problem that has long been acknowledged in British politics, that should have been more adequately dealt with before devolution took place, and that has come to be known as “the West Lothian Question” after a 1977 speech by Scottish Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell:

For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate… Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

As such – to keep the English Parliament lot happy (though I’m not sure why I should bother considering their wild hostility in my last post and decision to libel me with unfounded accusations) – here’s a dedicated post for them to rant at. (Which will probably be of little interest to anyone else…)

My views on the West Lothian Question

For the English Parliament lot in particular, a selection of some of my past comments on the idea of an English Parliament – which both show some sympathy to your cause, and raise some concerns that I have:

Example 1: (17/08/09) “The campaign for an English Parliament – effectively English devolution – is something that makes a good amount of sense since Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been granted their own assemblies.”

Example 2: (07/02/06) “it’s not very hard. You look at the legislation and ask “is this going to affect England only?” (e.g. quite a chunk of education and health policy) – if the answer’s “yes” then Scottish MPs shouldn’t vote”

And so yes, I do have some sympathy to the arguments for an English Parliament.

What I don’t get, though, is the idea that an English Parliament is the only – or indeed the best – solution. As I said yesterday,

“I still don’t see any convincing reasons for England to be any better a unit of governance than the United Kingdom – both are too large and too diverse to be sufficiently responsive to the needs of the people who live within them.”

But more of this later.

Level of support for an English Parliament

I also am not convinced that a 1.8% share of the vote for the English Democrats in the European elections back in June is indicative of the kind of widespread support that online supporters of an English Parliament always seem to assert.

The figure normally quoted by an English Parliament’s supporters is that 73% back the idea of an English Parliament, based on a solitary BBC poll from 2006. What is normally ignored is another poll the BBC conducted in early 2007. This also showed a majority support for the idea, though this time only 61%.

But look at the more detailed breakdown of that poll and you get a rather different picture – PDF. This showed that only 25% from England thought that England would benefit from “independence” from the United Kingdom, with 24% thinking such a move would be damaging. At the same time just 11% reckoned English independence would “enhance” English culture, with 10% saying it would be “diminished” (and 76% saying it would make “no difference”).

And the headline figure? In England, 73% would “Prefer [the] Union to continue as it is/has done”.

That hardly shows overwhelming support for the idea, in my books.

How much would an English Parliament cost?

OK, so given that I agree that the West Lothian Question can be seen to pose a problem for democracy within England, and ignoring the fact that 73% of the population of England seem not to mind, what are the practicalities?

The obvious question is how much would it cost? Well, the Scottish Parliament’s costs have famously soared over the years – the building alone ending up costing about ten times more than planned.

Then there are the 129 MSPs, with a basic salary of £52,226 (so a bare minimum salary bill of £6.7 million just for the politicians – let alone the other staff and running expenses and the like). Each MSP represents around 55,000 electors – England has a significantly larger population, so either the constituencies would need to be far larger (thus reducing the connection between electors and elected representatives) or we’d need far more politicians (thus increasing the cost).

Either way, taxes would either have to go up, or spending on public services would have to go down. Which would make the wonderful list of things that would become free if there were an English Parliament start to look rather less certain.

Is there another solution?

Meanwhile, we already have 529 English MPs sitting in Westminster – sitting in a room only a few hundred feet from where English Parliaments have sat since the 13th century. There are just 117 non-English MPs.

In other words, England already has plenty of representation in Westminster, at the site of the Parliament of England’s traditional home.

And – at effectively zero additional cost to the taxpayer – it would be entirely possible to pass a quick Act of Parliament to the effect that Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs are unable to vote on those issues that have been devolved to their respective national assemblies. Which would solve the whole West Lothian Question overnight.

This solution is so obvious it’s painful. And just because it was rejected by Tony Blair doesn’t mean that it hasn’t got a chance of being passed in future. It’s certainly got a lot more chance of happening than the creation of an expensive parallel parliament in England, running alongside that of Westminster.

And in any case, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but politicians aren’t very popular at the moment. What makes you think – especially after the expenses scandal – that we want any more of the buggers?

So, English Parliament lot – convince me. Why should we fork out a load of extra money on even more politicians when we could just stop Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from voting on England-only issues – solving all the same problems that an English Parliament would at a fraction of the cost?