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.

8 thoughts on “England is unfair to England

  1. It’s Britain that’s unfair to England; the English are as much victims of Britain as the Welsh are.

    Westminster will keep central control of England because to devolve power to England would be to render the British parliament practically redundant.

  2. The Barnett formula is a subsidy and as such should not exist. If a country wants a seperate identity it should have the pride and enterprise to finance itself.
    The real damage to England comes from the British government which is England’s greatest enemy.
    Scot/Ire/Wal can make nation specific laws that are the ruination of England.
    Control of housing limits immigration so 99% of immigrants stay in England. The British gov builds houses in England for them because they cannot build them in the other countries.
    Unlimited immigration will wreck any country and the Brits have ensured that only England suffers that fate.
    The Brit controlled media ensure that England will not have an identity or national pride.
    The Irish went to war against the Brits for less.
    The English have to pay for aged care, almost every penny of most family assets. In Scotland family assets are passed on so many offspring never have a mortgage. In England every working person now has to have lifelong debt because the Brits have taken their inheritance.
    Those that control England of course do not have this problem, they have money or massive pensions to protect their assets.
    Justice demands that England has a seperate parliament and someday our people will demand it.
    We all need to drive the dedicated Brits from our countries and govern ourselves in a friendly federation of brothers & sisters.

  3. “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.”

    It’s strange then Geraint, that you seem to be advocating the same for Wales in comments you’ve left on other blog entries; the centralization of everything around Cardiff. I’m as proud of Cardiff as being my capital as anybody. However, Cardiff is not Wales. And if it wants to truly be the capital, then it needs to be linked to the north by a train service running through Wales and a top grade road link joining the north with the south. Or, what we’ll soon be having are articles on the lines of Wales, is unfair to Wales’. Already, there are rumblings.

    I agree with what you say above though. 🙂

  4. David, I’m afraid the analogy between London and Cardiff does not hold water. There is an immense difference in scale and intensity – to the extent that many are now referring to London as another country. The scale of concentration in the south east of England and in central London in particular is piling up massive congestion costs. In contrast, the Welsh capital does not punch its weight economically, ranking below many other UK cities including such as Nottingham. Wales as a whole needs an effective and competitive city as capital but, more than that, we have to address the concentration of multiple deprivation in the Valleys areas. Even the advocates of a city region in south east Wales know that it will have to adopt a polycentric approach if it is to work. Every part of Wales has to do its bit if we are to turn things round. We will not succeed by preventing any part of Wales from achieving its potential.

  5. Westminster is England’s Parliament. It has a huge inbuilt permanent English majority, in both Commons and Lords. Moreover, unlike the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, it has ALL the powers, indeed, almost uniquely on this planet it is sovereign over the people it indirectly governs. The asymmetry of the nations, and the existence of the Barnett formula, ensures that just about everything that Westminster legislates for affects us all, directly or indirectly, regardless of devolution.

    If the truth be told, the settlement of 1997 was ill-conceived. Dalyell was correct in pointing out the inherent flaws in such a system as early as the 70s. It reflected the desire (of the Labour government) to devolve as little power as possible with the minimum threat to parliamentary sovereignty which underpins Westminster government, whilst giving the impression (especially in Wales) that something significant was taking place. Holyrood and the Assembly were designed to be tame Labour fiefdoms, the Assembly an administrative talking shop. Thankfully it has backfired on them in a big way in Scotland.

    Labour should have seen it coming, because as Geraint points out, the highly centralised British state has failed many parts of this island to an unacceptable degree, especially the parts of the country, like Wales, that largely votes Labour.

    Mckay hasn’t come up with a workable solution because there isn’t one. In typical British fashion there is a refusal in unionist circles to admit that a serious problem exists. Devolving a little here, a bit more there, isn’t going to solve it.

    The Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s Report of 25 March 2013 reflects the unionist failure to even begin to grasp the central issue. It’s understandable, because they are at the very heart of the problem. They can only see a solution from a Westminster standpoint.

    Wales is, and has been for decades, in serious economic trouble having reached an alarming state of dependency from which it has absolutely no prospects of recovery whilst the current constitutional set-up remains. In the meantime the ostriches in their ivory towers at Westminster and in Whitehall carry on regardless.

    Things can’t go on as they are. Hopefully the Scots will have the good sense to break the log jam in eighteen months’ time. If that happens it will be a wake up call for Labour in Wales to really start fighting their nation’s corner. They will finally have to decide which brand of nationalism to espouse.

    The populations of all four nations in these islands deserve far better from the political system, which hitherto has favoured sectional and regional interests, particularly the political elite itself. It has to be swept away, if we are to have a happier and more prosperous future.

  6. Will, if you look at the data you’ll see Wales has had immigration on a scale that England has never experienced. The proportion of people living in England and not born there is about 5 per cent. In Wales that proportion is 25 per cent. As for houses, one of every ten houses in Gwynedd (north-west Wales to you) is a second home, owned by someone outside Wales.

  7. Does the McKay Commission make any provision for Welsh votes for Welsh laws? For example, who would be able to vote on clause 8 of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill dealing exclusively with the Church in Wales?

  8. There’s not a single English MP in Westminster. They’re all British to their corrupt core and fundamentally anti-English. That is why we English are denied a referendum on home rule, an English parliament or English independence.

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