July 26, 2007

An English Parliament

Vino beleives that an English Parliament is unneccessary at the moment- and he argues the case here. Vino's arguments do make sense but they are based on what I would deem a prudential calculation- that the English do not need a Parliament- I think its worth though starting with the principle. The issue at the moment in the UK is that there are various asymmetrical devolution settlements- there is not just one problem- but Parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have different powers and in England there is no body with those powers. All other decisions are taken at a national level- hence whilst a Scottish MP at Westminster can vote on English health matters he can't vote on Scottish health matters. This produces the situation like in England recently where a measure passed charging English students for their university stay, because Scottish MPs voted for it, when Scottish students receive free university education. There is here a manifest injustice.

The principle of representative government is violated in another way- because of the way that the funding of the UK works actually the Scottish government ends up spending money obtained from the English taxpayer- which produces yet another inconsistency- the principle that no taxation is obtained without representation is violated. However its the bigger issue the fact that Scottish voters have a role in deciding English issues, when English voters don't in Scottish issues which deserves some attention. It makes voting something that depends on location- all voters are equal but some are more equal than others- and the impression that creates is a problematic one.

Vino you see lastly argues that the issue doesn't matter because there is no political backlash- but as his comments show I think there is a backlash growing- one that might grow further should Labour win the next election by Scottish votes. One of the nastiest currents in modern British politics is the rise of English nationalism- in the northern towns and in the Tory villas there is a sense of the disenfranchisement of 'English people'- right or wrong (and mostly I think its wrong) giving those people a legitimate greivance and deeming it insignificant is just the way to store up a nasty reaction. Remember as well the economic situation has been benign- when it becomes less benign the issues of differential taxation adn the powers of the MPs from Scotland may grow. The fragility of democracy is something too few appreciate- and creating different franchises isn't helpful in providing ballast to democracy.

Ultimately for me this is an issue of principle- irrespective of party- if Britain is to have federal government it should have federal government that's fine, independence for Scotland and Wales or total union are options as well- but an option where votes mean different things in different places strikes me as a stroke against the fundamental structures of democracy- and something that could create a backlash- and an unpleasant one at that.


Ashok said...

This produces the situation like in England recently where a measure passed charging English students for their university stay, because Scottish MPs voted for it, when Scottish students receive free university education. There is here a manifest injustice.

Alright. There are two fundamental options on the table, and only two:

1. Fix the problem structurally (create an English parliament).

2. Use existing means to solve the problem (have the English get super mad and make the Scots pay through the system, not burning Aberdeen down again).

If you want anything like stability, 2 is the only way to go. 1 only inflames the nationalism you're worrying about more; once purely nationalist discourse is accepted as legitimate, then the UK is irrelevant.

I submit the deep problem with #2 is that the Scots are stupid as all hell right now. It sounds like they've gotta stop watching Braveheart and get it in their skulls that ripping off the English is going to cause something very ugly very fast. The anger the English feel isn't bad, and even the Scottish MP's trying to rip off the English a bit isn't bad - a large part of politics is "procuring" stuff for constituencies.

But people need to know when to back down. Perhaps the great legacy of the IRA is that it maybe has corroded English politics utterly - again, I know nothing about these issues, this is all conjecture, I'm not exactly sober right now. Negotiating with Sinn Fein means that one has to take the guy down the street in Manchester that threatens to commit acts of arson if he doesn't get a larger disability check for his mental illness (which is conveniently the tendency to commit acts of arson) not as a criminal, but as a political actor.

Similarly, there will always be graft in government, and a give and take. But the case against the Scottish MP's - if it can be made to show a pattern of outright criminality - probably shows that the Scots have no right to representation whatsoever. In America, a legislator who tries to screw everyone else all the time would be censured by his own branch and rendered powerless. He'd have his seat, but the people he represents would have no representation directly whatsoever.

The anger the English have is a good thing. Let the Scots have it in print, and make it clear how "legitimate" their MP's are - they're a bunch of crooks, and if Scots stay complicit, then they need to be punished along with their MP's. Best way to punish them is for their to be no English Parliament, but just the one and only one there should be, where citizens are represented through the UK and not by their tribal origins.

And yeah, I am arguing that a federal government should work in such a way as to promote national unity, and the way that happens is by insisting not on propaganda, but on a sort of equality - the Scots may want to take advantage of the English, and they probably can here and there, but they'd better learn that there are lines that better not be crossed, because "equality" means "if we're equal, I can only mess with another so much."

There is a much higher concept of equality than this, but hey, this double malt Scotch isn't gonna finish itself right now.

Vino S said...

Hi Henry,

Thanks for your article. It is good to see a rational critique of my view laid out - with federalism being proposed as the solution. I would, however, point out that federalism [as opposed to symmetrical devolution] would actually require a written constitution [since a federal system implies one where the parts of it have specific reserved constitutional rights - as opposed to devolution where the units within it have powers only as granted to them by the centre]. A written constitution is a whole different kettle of fish.

I am interested with your focus on tuition fees. Presumably, your objection is that Scottish MPs voted on the issue - rather than the fact that there is a difference between England and Scotland _per se_. After all, the point of devolution is that it does allow different areas to take a different approach to issues [just like, in the US, different states have different laws]. I think that point needs to be clarified.

Henry, in subsequent comments i made in response to the comments on my post, I clarified that people can be sympathetic to an issue but not think of it as a priority. I put the English Parliament issue in this category - as I put the House of Lords reform issue. I, as you are aware, do favour a mainly-elected House of Lords and I believe Charter 88 claim most of the population do. I however accept the fact that it is a relatively minor issue and the illogicality of the current 2nd chamber arrangements does not provoke much public outrage. I would argue that the English parliament issue falls in the same category. If you give people a referendum, most may well support it [and i have no problem with such a referendum, as was held in Scotland and Wales], but that doesn't mean that is a major political factor for them.

Another point I would be interested to hear your view on is the fact that, in the UK-wide parliament, no law will pass _unless a majority of its supporters come from English constituencies_. I gave a breakdown of the fact that any majority Labour government would have 245+ MPs from England. As such, and judging by comments on the thread, people seem to forget that policies they dislike that were brought in by the government did have the support of lots and lots of English MPs - i.e. it is a different situation than when Scotland faced the poll tax and other legislation it disliked.

Also, you talk about differential taxation. I think it should be made clear is that what you are talking about is the Barnett Formula. Presumably you are saying it is too generous to Scotland. That may well be the case. But _any system_ of distributing a block grant (to local authorities as much as to the Scottish parliament) will always be the subject of some controversy. Is there a better formula that can be followed?

Vino S said...

Sorry, Henry, a second comment as I do have a bit to say on your last paragraph as well.

You lay out the logical options you see - federalism, total union or a dissolusion of the UK. However, as i am sure you are aware, the pre-1997 situation was none of these. And, in fact, one of (in my view) the best comments that Donald Dewar made on the WLQ was that the status quo was itself an anomaly as Scottish law [and of course Scotland has always had a separate legal system - one of the most memorable differences from ours is that a 'not proven' verdict can be reached in criminal cases rather than just a guilty or a not guilty one] was being made by a Parliament that had only 10% Scottish membership.

Now, I know you are not a Tory and don't feel obliged to defend the pre-1997 situation, but I find it odd that Tories who saw nothing wrong with bills that applied only to Scotland [and there were plenty because of the different criminal law and civil law systems] being passed by the UK parliament are suddenly getting outraged by the WLQ.

Presumably, to your mind, the pre-1997 situation was also wrong. But do you think that it was as urgent an issue to fix that as you think the creation of an English parliament is?

All in all, I think your ideas [just like some of mine on the House of Lords and a written constitution] are actually quite constitutionally radical. As someone who has always been seen as on the left I am not surprised to be having views which mean radical changes in our constitutional arrangements. I am a bit surprised since [maybe you will disagree with me on this] you have often had more small-c conservative (or at least moderate) views that you too are embracing radical constitutional reform [and federalism would mean that].

Jools said...

As far as I'm concerned the Union is at death's door.

English taxes for England - Home rule for England.

Terry said...

Labour was panicked by nationalists to the north and the west. Their half baked solution devolved power to the nations, not the regions.

This gave cause for a re-emergence of English nationalism and if the English are demanding equal treatment (nothing more and nothing less). This seems eminently reasonable to me.

If the Union is to survive, we need to treat all citizens equally, and that means giving England a Parliament of her own.

T said...

why can't political solutions be a compromise? If we'd had no devolution in Scotland or Wales but did in NI, would that justify national parliaments across the union? No... oh because its special case... exactly.

Terry said...

...NI is not a nation, it is a province. It may have justified other provinces to have devolved powers if there were any...but er, there are none.

However we do have devolution in Scotland and Wales. The only nation left out is the nation that demands equality with the other nations. Who'da predicted that?

gladthereafter said...

Gracchi you say that the "sense of disenfranchisement of 'English people'" is mostly wrongheaded, but you demonstrate its rightheadedness in your previous paragraphs:

asymmetrical devolution settlements...manifest injustice...representative government is violated...no taxation is obtained without representation is violated...

And nothing more clearly articulates our disenfranchised state than your insulting quotes around 'English people'. Do we not exist Gracchi?

Your response to people who object even to the injustices you list: "One of the nastiest currents in modern British politics..."

Now that's nasty!

And of course the injustices are more fundamental than that; you point to them with your rejection of English nationalism.

I'll re-jig the start of your final paragraph:

Ultimately for me this is an issue of principle - irrespective of ethnicity. If we abjure empire and respect the native right to self-determination of Africans and Asians, Scots and Welsh, we must afford the same right to the English.