What Gladstone and Disraeli have to teach us about the English question

Nick Pearce argues that Labour has much to gain from a devolution settlement that gives greater representation to England

Last week the prime minister is announcing the formation of an expert Commission on the West Lothian question. Ever since Tam Dalyell first raised it during the 1970s debate on devolution, the West Lothian question has been a hardy perennial of constitutional reform. Yet it has now become a more urgent question to address, not simply because of the impending referendum on independence for Scotland, but because of rising English hostility to the existing devolution settlement.

In polling results from The dog that finally barked, a report published today on English political identity, IPPR found that 79 per cent of voters in England believe that Scottish MPs should be barred from voting on English-only laws. Importantly, support for reform in this area was even greater among the growing proportion of the population in England who emphasise their English over their British identities, suggesting evidence of the politicisation of Englishness.

English votes on English laws (EVEL), which would bar Scottish MPs from voting on English matters, sounds like a seductively simple solution to the West Lothian anomaly, but as Gladstone discovered during the Irish home rule debates of the 19th century, it is notoriously difficult to make work in practice.

The first problem is technical: it is very difficult to certify a bill as ‘England-only’. For instance, the bill introducing tuition fees in England contained clauses extending to Scotland. Breaking down the territorial extent of each clause of each bill would lead to legislative hokey-cokey within the Commons. After agonising over the intricacies of the policy, Gladstone eventually concluded that “it passed the wit of man to frame any distinct, thorough-going, universal severance between the one class of subject and the other”.

The second and more fundamental problem, however, is constitutional: EVEL raises the prospect of a UK government unable to govern England because it lacks a majority of English MPs. This scenario occurred in 1964 and February 1974, when UK Labour governments were formed despite the Conservatives holding a majority of English seats. Under EVEL such governments would be unable to legislate for English domestic policy. It has often been argued that such chaos would create a greater constitutional anomaly than that generated by West Lothian itself.

Another proposal might be to reduce the number of MPs for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as this would reduce the likelihood that these MPs could overturn the majority view of English MPs. Here again, however, the government’s proposals for equal constituencies mean that MPs from the Celtic fringe are already facing significant reduction in representation – the number of seats in Wales is due to be slashed by 25 per cent, for example.

The other solution is an English parliament. Its proponents argue such a body would bring symmetrical balance to the union. Yet the reality might be that an English parliament would generate instability, since, given the dominance of England, it would create a fundamentally lopsided federation. How would a Westminster parliament work when the bulk of its business for 85 per cent of the population was decanted to a subsidiary parliament?

Yet despite these difficulties with each of the options for addressing the West Lothian question, and the broader issue of English governance, it is difficult to see how the status quo will remain tenable, whatever happens in Scotland. If the Scottish people vote for independence, the Westminster parliament will become completely dominated by the English, and we can expect the Welsh and Northern Irish to seek some constitutional protection in a reformed upper house, as Carwyn Jones argued a few weeks ago.

If Scotland chooses ‘devo-max’, the West Lothian question becomes even more egregious. It is impossible to think of Scottish MPs being returned to Westminster on the same basis as their English counterparts if Scotland has full fiscal autonomy. Even if Scotland chooses to reject independence and to settle for the status quo, our polling shows that the rise in English sentiment against the current arrangements will prove hard to resist.

There are many Conservatives who would happily bid farewell to Scotland, even if the prime minister is not among their number. They regard Englishness as their primary political identity and view the break-up of Britain with equanimity. Some see it as an opportunity to assert a new, Eurosceptic Englishness.

In contrast, liberalism has deep roots in Scotland, despite its current parlous state. The Liberals dominated Scotland throughout the 19th Century, dominance they lost only when sectarian unionism took hold and class politics became more salient. Yet the Liberal Democrats are constituted as a federal party, and many in their ranks are very comfortable with the prospect of devo-max (or ‘home rule’ for Scotland, as some put it).

It is Labour that has the deepest anxieties about the future of the union. It is unionist by temperament, ideology and history. It is fearful of the English question because it believes any answer to the challenges it poses will weaken the party politically. In particular, Labour MPs fear that any restrictions to Scottish representation at Westminster will make it harder for the party to form a UK government.

This fear is exaggerated. First, the mythology surrounding Labour’s Celtic heartland overplays the party’s historic dependence on Scottish MPs, in particular. Elections in which Scottish MPs have been decisive are relatively rare. There have been no elections since the second world war in which Scottish MPs have turned a Conservative majority into a Labour government or vice versa. True, the Conservatives would have won an outright majority in 2010 without Labour’s Scottish seats, and Labour needed its Scottish MPs to win in 1964 and October 1974. But Labour would have won with reduced majorities in 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005 without its Scottish MPs.

That is not to say that, in an era of hung parliaments and coalitions, Scottish MPs might not tip the balance more often in the future. It is rarely acknowledged, for instance, that if a Lib-Lab coalition had been formed in May 2010 (a very big if) it would not have had a majority of seats in England. So the Labour party clearly cannot afford to be sanguine about these seats.

But as a unionist party, Labour would also benefit from a new English settlement. Democratic reform within a new United Kingdom settlement that ensured greater devolution of power to England’s cities would help Labour, given its strength in the core urban areas. An English Labour party would also be more open to progressive coalition with the Liberal Democrats and others, making it more likely to govern in partnership in the UK (the further south you go, the less tribal Labour becomes).

Moreover, just as devolution could build new sites of power for different political parties, so too a reformed union could have a strong ‘Celtic brake’ in parliament, if devo-max for Scotland meant that EVEL was accompanied by a territorial element of representation in a reformed upper house.

These are all complex, politically fraught considerations for any political party. Yet it is important for political strategists to grasp the underlying dynamics that will shape the long-term political environment. For years during the 19th Century, the Tories feared that franchise extension would spell political doom for them.

It was Disraeli who recognised that the only thing that was inevitable was reform itself – and that to survive the Tories needed to turn political change to their own advantage. No matter how much some voices in Labour want the debate about England to go away, the simple fact is that forces are now in play both within England and across the UK as a whole that mean that English question cannot remain unanswered. Labour needs its own Disraeli moment.

Nick Pearce is Director of the IPPR think tank. This article was previously published on his blog that appears on the IPPR’s website.

One thought on “What Gladstone and Disraeli have to teach us about the English question

  1. Supposing a Union persists, EVEL would require a change in the basis of the Barnett formula. It would have to give devolved territories a share of some very general aggregate such as tax revenues or general government expenditure. It could not be calculated on the basis of “consequentials” of detailed items of English expenditure, as at present. The reason is clear: English laws affect expenditure allocations and hence the finances that devolved territories receive; those territories therefore have a legitimate interest even if the laws as such do not apply to them.

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