England is unfair to England

Geraint Talfan Davies contests the basic assertion behind the McKay Commission report

Complaints from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland about a lack of fair treatment are often characterised by people at the centre of the UK (who may not always be English) as a ‘Celtic whinge’. It has to be said that sometimes they are right. It is an instinct that we must learn to curb, partly because it may be dangerously infectious. On the evidence presented by the McKay Commission on ‘the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons’, the whinge virus is now endemic in England.

Living with our neighbours

This is the first of three articles examining some constitutional dilemmas facing Wales as a result of living inside the United Kingdom and the European Union. Tomorrow Gerry Hassan asks us to imagine, just for a minute, if Scotland says ‘yes’ in next year’s independence referendum. On Sunday Daniel Cohn-Bendit argues that we need a European roof over Germany rather than the Angela Merkel’s German Europe.

Before examining the spread and substance of the virus I think I should point out not only, in the time honoured phrase, that some of my best friends are English, but also that I believe England is a nation whose history and temperament offer much for admiration and emulation. I should also point out that my family and I have lived on two occasions in the north east of England and have always counted the experiences and the lasting friendships a privilege.

On the political front the north east of England is a part of the country, that though distant from Wales in miles, is too often our nearest neighbour at the bottom end of economic league tables. There is a ready empathy between the two and, thankfully, northern directness usually stops a complaint from becoming a whinge.

But back to McKay. The rather po-faced title of the Commission’s report is designed to put a constitutional gloss on an inquiry into the idea of ‘English votes for English laws’. If we are to believe The Sun and the Daily Mail this cry has arisen in cities and shires across England since Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland got, or recovered, their own legislatures and governments in the late 1990s. But where could this cry have come from?

It was the English poet G.K Chesterton, who warned us not to mistake the phlegmatic silence of his compatriots, that he called The Secret People:

It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest

God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.

But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.

Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

Plainly, this under-stated threat got up the nose of Tam Dalyell, the Eton-educated Scottish Labour and Unionist MP for West Lothian, and self-confessed contrarian who voted against his own government more than 100 times. His autobiography is titled The importance of being awkward.

It was Tam Dalyell, during the passage of the doomed devolution legislation in the 1970s, who pointed up the potential anomaly whereby, if devolved administrations were created, English MPs would not be able to vote on domestic legislation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whereas the MPs from those countries would be able to vote on laws for England. An English majority could be outvoted by the intervention of the Celts. Enoch Powell, the self-proclaimed Tory nationalist who once advised Churchill to re-conquer India, dubbed this question the West Lothian question.

Members of the McKay Commission constitute the latest group of people to have failed to find an answer to the conundrum. In recent years constitutional experts have made themselves ill searching for a solution. Nobody seems to question the basic assertion that England is unfairly done by. Despite all the polling and contrived sense of grievance, the assertion does not pass the test of common sense.

Even on the basis of historical analysis the McKay Commission found that the chances of the English will being frustrated by the massed ranks of Scots and Welsh MPs (and the Northern Irish when they turn up) are desperately slim. It points out that “only in the short-lived Parliaments of 1964-66 and February-October 1974 was the party with a majority of MPs in England in opposition.” Both periods pre-date democratic devolution.

It cites only two occasions, in 2003 and 2004 respectively, when the Labour Government carried its proposals for foundation hospitals and for university top-up fees in England, only because Labour MPs from Scotland and Wales negated the effect of a rebellion by English Labour MPs. But it is arguable that had the Scots and Welsh been debarred from voting on the issue, the rebellion in England may have been a lot smaller. Rebels knew that their vote would not carry the day and embarrass their own government.

The idea that the way in which these islands are governed is somehow unfair to England is one of the more risible assertions in contemporary politics. It may well be that Scotland gets too great a share of the spoils, as the Holtham Commission pointed out in its analysis of the Barnett formula. However, that is a boil to be lanced rather than an existential threat to a nation comprising 85 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom. It is the pea under the English princess’s pile of mattresses. The existential threat to the UK that lies in the 2014 Scottish referendum does not arise from any unfairness to England.

McKay dismisses federalism, English regionalism and an English Parliament as either unwanted or unworkable. But its conclusion that almost every solution posed to the West Lothian conundrum falls foul of the sheer asymmetry of the United Kingdom, is the clearest testimony of the power and ubiquity of the English veto. As a democrat I do not complain about that (at least, not in all circumstances). My complaint is different.

England is a country that lies at the centre of the UK and has acquired to itself – often, in the past, with the acquiescence of Scottish and Welsh MPs – the greatest degree of central government control in any Western democracy. The intense centralisation of political, economic and cultural power in the UK damages parts of England as much as Wales and Scotland. It has also required the emasculation of Parliament.

The occasional professed localism of the dominant political parties is at best skin deep and at worst a disguise for the real agenda. Many Ministers at Westminster have remits that cover both the UK and England, handled with a daily insouciance towards any conflicts of interest. Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms are but the latest example. Even a House of Lords Committee complained about the Treasury being judge and jury in its own cause when operating the Barnett formula.

The real surprise is the acquiescence of large parts of England in this centralisation, and their failure to recognise that the only effective counterweight to this centralisation is what has been achieved by Scotland and Wales by peaceful means. If England could but see it, we have shown them a way. It is England that is unfair to England.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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