The Constitution Unit has recently begun work on a new project examining the design options for an English Parliament. This was once seen as an unrealistic proposal but support has grown in recent years and it therefore now deserves to be taken more seriously. Nonetheless many major questions about what an English Parliament might actually look like remain unaddressed. In this post Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell set these questions out and invite views on them through a consultation that is now open and will close on 27 January 2017.
Calls for an English Parliament have long existed, but frequently been rejected by academics and mainstream politicians. Although a Campaign for an English Parliament was set up in 1998, as the devolved institutions were being established for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the idea did not get off the ground. A central argument has been that such a parliament, thanks to representing almost 85 per cent of the UK’s population, would, in the words of the 1973 Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution, result in a Union ‘so unbalanced as to be unworkable’ (para 531). As critics such as Vernon Bogdanor (p. 13) have pointed out, no major existing federation has a component part this dominant, and unbalanced federal systems (e.g. the former USSR and Yugoslavia), have tended to fail. Elites have thus often proposed devolution within England, rather than to England as a whole, as the preferred solution to the ‘English question’, and considered an English Parliament an unrealistic proposal. As the Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazell wrote in 2006, ‘An English Parliament is not seriously on the political agenda, and will never get onto the agenda unless serious politicians begin to espouse it’.
Growing salience of the English question
But various factors have increased the salience of questions around England’s place in the devolution settlement, and the idea of an English Parliament has gained new friends as a result. One factor is the gradually greater powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly beyond those bestowed in the 1990s – including legislative powers in an increasing number of fields and significant tax-raising powers. This means that a growing amount of business at Westminster concerns England (or sometimes England and Wales) alone. In turn, this brings the famous ‘West Lothian question’, concerning the voting rights of MPs elected from the devolved nations, more to the fore. The Conservative government consequently introduced a form of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) in 2015, through changes to House of Commons standing orders. But the new arrangements have been rejected by opposition parties, so might not survive a change of government. Furthermore, the version of EVEL that has been introduced does not actually prevent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from vetoing English-only legislation. It is therefore far from clear that this will prove to be a satisfactory long-term solution.
Another contributing factor is growing interest in the future of the Union pre- and post- the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Various unionist politicians, pundits and other political observers have considered how Scottish demands for greater autonomy may be satisfied within the UK, and federalism is being increasingly discussed. The EU referendum result has led some such as Professor Jim Gallagher (Director-General, Devolution Strategy at the Cabinet Office from 2007–10) to suggest that the devolved nations, whilst remaining within the UK, might each pursue different relationships with the EU post-Brexit. Heavyweight political support for something similar has come from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and former Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander. The threat of a second Scottish independence referendum, announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote and repeated since, means the government needs to take such proposals seriously. This would clearly require the consequences for England to be addressed.
A third factor is a growth in English, as supposed to British, national identity among the population. Professor Michael Kenny argued in his 2014 book The Politics of English Nationhood that politicians needed to ‘accept and speak to the implications of this shift’ (p. 239). Already we know from polling that those identifying as English rather than British were more likely to support UKIP and the Leave campaign, leading mainstream politicians to consider how to increase their appeal among patriotic English voters. The English question has traditionally exercised Conservative politicians in particular, but it is now within the Labour Party that these issues are being most urgently discussed. Recent manifestations include an e-book, Labour’s Identity Crisis: England and the Politics of Patriotism, edited by former Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, and a new group of MPs, Red Shift Labour, which has published three reports on how the party can improve its English appeal. A central message is that Labour must be more prepared to embrace English identity. As yet there is little agreement on how this should be achieved, but constitutional solutions are among those being discussed.
Support has grown for an English Parliament, but no detailed blueprint exists
Hence 10 years on from Robert Hazell’s comments, the idea of an English Parliament commands significantly more political support. On the Conservative side the most persistent advocate has been John Redwood, whilst other prominent supporters include David Davis, now Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and Lord Salisbury. Within the Labour Party Frank Field, a longstanding exponent of an English Parliament, has recently been joined by the former shadow cabinet members Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna. John Denham, who served in Gordon Brown’s cabinet and established a Centre of English Identity and Politics at Winchester University in 2015, is open-minded towards the idea. The Scottish National Party are also favourable, and Paul Nuttall, widely expected to win the UKIP leadership election, has pledged support for ‘an English Parliament for English people’. Of course, many other politicians remain convinced by the case against an English Parliament, and neither the Conservative or Labour leaderships appear close to support. But the growing interest across the political spectrum means that the idea deserves to be taken more seriously than previously.
Nonetheless, there remains no detailed blueprint for what an English Parliament might actually look like – compared, for example, to the proposals produced by the Scottish Constitutional Convention which formed the basis for the design of the Scottish Parliament. Hence we have recently begun work on a new project at the Constitution Unit, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, that seeks to address this gap. The project follows the Unit’s influential work on the design of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in the 1990s. We will not be advocating for or against an English Parliament – there are strong arguments on both sides and it is ultimately for politicians to decide which case they find more convincing. Instead we will undertake an objective analysis of the options for the detailed design of such a body, in order to inform future deliberations. Whilst some proponents have addressed some design questions they often disagree on key points, while other major questions remain largely unaddressed. We will ask (and – as indicated below – are seeking views on) questions including the following:
- Should an English Parliament be established as part of a settlement to bind the UK together in a more stable way, or to facilitate English independence? Many supporters of an English Parliament are motivated by a desire to prolong the Union in the context of pressures for Scottish independence. Frank Field, for example, has written that an English Parliament is ‘the only way to save the UK’. Yet there have been recent moves towards supporting English independence among some of those campaigning for an English Parliament. The English Democrats have come out in support of independence and Eddie Bone, the Campaign Director of the Campaign for an English Parliament, has suggested that ‘English independence might be the only way forward’.
- Should an English Parliament be separately elected, or should it be composed of English members of the House of Commons holding a dual mandate? The first of these is favoured by the Campaign for an English Parliament, and would mirror arrangements in the existing devolved nations, but the second commands significant support among advocates of an English Parliament, including Conservative MPs John Redwood and Andrew Rosindell.
- What powers should an English Parliament have? Most proponents agree that these should be equivalent to the powers of the Scottish Parliament, but in some models, for instance that proposed by Conservative MP Teresa Gorman in the late 1990s, an English Parliament would be responsible for everything except foreign affairs and defence.
- How many members should there be in an English Parliament, and within what structure? Under the dual mandate model mentioned above the number of members would clearly be determined by the number of English members of the House of Commons (currently 538). Were a separate English Parliament to be established it might be different – the Wilberforce Society, for example, has proposed a 180-seat English Parliament. The body might also be either unicameral or bicameral.
- What electoral system and boundaries should be used for an English Parliament? Alternatives to first-past-the-post have been used for other devolved parliaments in the UK, but it is not certain that this would also be the case for an English Parliament. The dual mandate model obviously implies the use of first-past-the-post (so long as that system continues to be used for Westminster elections), whilst many leading advocates of a separate English Parliament have not been clear about what electoral system they envisage being used.
- Where should an English Parliament sit? Some supporters of an English Parliament suggest that it would be based at Westminster (either in the House of Commons or House of Lords chamber) but others, including the singer Billy Bragg, have proposed locations outside London.
- Should there also be an English government and First Minister? This is a key demand of the Campaign for an English Parliament and would almost certainly be a feature of any separately elected English Parliament. However, under the dual mandate model the UK government might continue to perform the role of the English government. The Conservative Welsh Assembly member David Melding suggests that, under his version of the dual mandate model (pp. 244–245), a UK government lacking a majority in England could either form a coalition to secure an English majority or seek to govern England as a minority administration.
- How should an English Parliament be financed? The Barnett formula, used to determine the level of public spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, would not work for an English Parliament with powers equivalent to those of the existing devolved institutions, as it is based on the UK government’s English expenditure. Hence a new funding model would be needed.
- How should an English Parliament relate to sub-national bodies such as city-regions? In debates about how to respond to the English question an English Parliament and regional devolution within England are often presented as alternatives. But in practice might it be desirable to have both?
- What implications would an English Parliament have for the UK parliament and government? Many proponents of an English Parliament suggest that the establishment of an English Parliament should lead to a reduction in the number of members of the UK parliament and perhaps even the abolition of one chamber. Frank Field, for instance, suggests reducing the UK parliament to a Senate of 250 members. In a report published in 2015 the Constitution Reform Group, headed by Lord Salisbury, stated that ‘it will almost certainly be a design specification for any new English Parliament proposal that it results in and accommodates at least a corresponding reduction in the size and cost of the Westminster Parliament’ (p. 23). A separate English Parliament would clearly also have major implications for Whitehall.
We are aware that there will be a range of views on these questions. We are hence today launching a consultation that will close on 27 January 2017. This is not about whether or not there should be an English Parliament but about how such a parliament should be designed were it to be established. It is also designed to tease out the diversity of views, and get a sense for whether there is any viable model around which proponents might unite.
It should be stressed that our consultation is not an opinion poll where responses will be counted up in order to measure the balance of opinion. We are seeking fairly detailed responses and particularly encourage responses from those who have given these questions considerable thought, and/or who have expertise in areas such as electoral systems, federalism, subnational government or devolution finance. We very much look forward to reading what respondents say, and this will guide our research as well as helping us to formulate our conclusions. We plan to publish our report late in 2017, and before then will include updates on the Constitution Unit blog.
About the authors
Jack Sheldon is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, working on the Options for an English Parliament project. He is also editor of the Constitution Unit newsletter and blog.
Professor Meg Russell is the Director of the Constitution Unit.