The English Question

My piece before the Scottish Referendum on the complexities of a Federal UK did not even attempt to answer the “English Question”. The obvious reason for that is that I don’t have an answer to it! A few thoughts, however…

Firstly, in principle, I think there is little doubt that “English-only votes on English-only issues” is now an accepted principle. Labour was foolish initially to seek to deny this, for nakedly partisan reasons. However, as I noted (and others began to note on Referendum Night) this also requires an “English Executive”. It does mean that a UK General Election could see one Government returned at “Federal” level and another at “English” level. Frankly, so be it! (An alternative to this, of course, is that there should be no more UK General Elections – each country should have its own Legislative Elections and then appoint/elect a Federal Senate, perhaps to replace the House of Lords, from there. I don’t think this is a realistic proposition – England just doesn’t do change on that scale, and certainly not just to suit the remaining 15% of the population.)

Secondly, the obvious way to deal with the “English Question” is a set of Regional Assemblies. However, this has been tried. The eight English regions outside London did have Regional Assemblies for some time – by appointment (not unlike a Civic Forum). However, when the North East was offered the chance to elect its, it rejected it by 7 to 2. England just doesn’t really do regions – standing alone, it is the most densely populated country in Europe and, generally, it therefore looks to its cities for identity and attachment rather than regions (which the English often find a suspect “European” thing). This does not totally rule out a return to English regional devolution, but it does mean it would be in the face of the electorate’ own preference – it is not likely, therefore.

Thirdly, there is also the “London Question”. Should London (i.e. Greater London) become more like a “fifth federal unit” of the UK? In my own proposals, I left the option open. My instinct is to avoid that initially (see below).

Fourthly, there is no reason that “Greater City Regions” shouldn’t take on the precise same roles as the Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly in exactly the same way. All law-making powers for England would remain at Westminster; however, significant delegated policy-making authority, particularly in transport and planning (as well as health and welfare budgets), could be delegated to “City Region Authorities” (with areas falling outside those City Regions having their policies made by a specific Department for English Rural Affairs in Whitehall, or perhaps via conglomerations of rural/metropolitan councils). This could be tested in Greater Manchester, and then be put in place at the very least for Tyne & Wear (Newcastle-Sunderland), West Yorkshire (Leeds-Bradford), South Yorkshire (Sheffield-Rotherham-Doncaster), Humberside (Hull-Grimsby), Merseyside (Liverpool-Wirral), West Midlands (Birmingham and surrounding area), East Midlands Urban Area (Leicester-Nottingham-Derby), Avon (Bristol and surrounding area), Urban Hampshire (Southampton-Portsmouth) and perhaps West Sussex (around Brighton and Hove). Most of these already co-operate at local authority level, and could continue to do so. They would have the precise same powers as Greater London – this commonality would be important.

Fifthly, as a final point, there is the absolute potential for such City Regions to raise their own income taxes to pay for infrastructure, or to have borrowing powers.

In other words, some are focusing on English legislative and governance arrangements while others are focusing on devolving powers to English regions or cities. In fact, I think it is obvious both should be done.

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7 thoughts on “The English Question

  1. Scots Anorak says:

    “Firstly, in principle, I think there is little doubt that “English-only votes on English-only issues” is now an accepted principle. Labour was foolish initially to seek to deny this, for nakedly partisan reasons.”

    Absolutely right. I see that Gordon Brown’s latest plan is to have 100,000 Scots sign a petition so that the supposedly cast-iron guarantees of further far-reaching devolution that he gave prior to the referendum are now implemented.

    http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/scottish-politics/brown-calls-on-scots-to-sign-petition-demanding-westminster-keeps-devolut.1412093013

    That could suggest one of three things: he is attempting to use the overwhelming wish of ordinary people for Home Rule as a party-political tool to the electoral benefit of Labour at Westminster; he is trying to dupe people into signing up to something less than Home Rule; or the promises that he gave were reckless because they were not backed up by power to deliver. Probably all three.

  2. William Allen says:

    The obvious solution is that the Westminster Parliament is the UK parliament and if the English do not want Scottish MPs etc voting on English only matters then just like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, England (not regions) should have its own parliament/assembly and First Minister etc. However the best solution of all is to get rid of the national parliaments and just all be British.

    • I really do think it’s more complex than that. Actually, the tidiest solution (which would become inevitable if we tried the “all-British” option) would be Scotland and Northern Ireland going their own way.

      The difficulty with what you propose initially is that devolved governments may feel bound to follow English policy and law, particularly if the Barnett formula were still in place (because, say, reducing university subvention in England would lead to reduced budgets in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales). That is why I think fiscal devolution is important.

  3. […] Source: The English Question […]

  4. Martin J Frankson says:

    Germany didn’t do regions until they were imposed post WW2 and they became accepted. England does do regions but some more than others. I don’t think there’s much regional identity in Sussex but there is in Cornwall and Yorkshire.
    I do like your idea of city based regions but not so much the idea of rural area that lie outside them being all lumped together in some rural affairs dept.
    Example : how would a Cumbrian villager outside a city unit vote on domestic matters. Would he she be governed the same as a villager in Sussex?

    • Martin,

      Of course, there is significant regional identity everywhere in Germany but the State boundaries don’t always reflect that. States tend to be mergers of localities. That may be what is necessary in England – but how to enforce it?

      For rural purposes, you could of course simply run more or less with the regions outside London and take the “City Regions” out of them: that might give:
      1. North West (excluding Greater Manchester urban; Merseyside urban).
      2. Northumbria (excluding Tyne/Wear urban; and give it a proper name!)
      3. Yorkshire (excluding West Yorkshire urban; South Yorkshire urban);
      4. Midlands (excluding Greater Birmingham urban);
      5. South East (i.e. Home Counties and Channel Coast excluding Hampshire urban);
      6. East Anglia (for the sake of identity I’d go for that over the much more artificial “East” and “South”);
      7. West Country & Cornwall (excluding Bristol/Avon urban).

      • Martin J Frankson says:

        We can impose them the same way we impose council districts. People accept them like the change of the seasons. People only take part in elections in greater numbers when the outcome of those elections has a significant impact on the wallet or purse. This is why such regional authorities should have meaty taxation powers as they do in Germany.

        As for separating city from country, hmm. This is hardly helpful for societal cohesion as it would drive a wedge between town and county and god knows there is too much of a gap there already. A city that rules for the city becomes ignorant of the needs of those who feed it and vice versa

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