When is a question not a question?

23 Apr 2012

Whilst many people will mark today, the anniversary of the death of England’s patron saint St George, by flying flags, Morris dancing and campaigning for a new bank holiday, it also seems an apt moment to reconsider the ‘English Question’.


Ever since West Lothian MP Tam Dalyell questioned post-devolution arrangements in Westminster, the issue of Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on legislation applying only to England has been a point of some contention. But the so-called ‘West Lothian’ question is not the only issue under discussion and the ‘English question’ has come to represent an array of constitutional conundrums.


Part of the problem in finding the answer to the ‘English question’ (if indeed there is one) is that it is not a single question. There is the constitutional anomaly created by devolution arrangements as noted by Tam Dalyell, but beyond this, many people question whether post-devolution England commands enough political voice within the Union. In addition, for many the ‘English question’ encompasses issues of decentralisation and regionalism; whether power needs to move away from Westminster.


On this last point – let’s call it the English, English Question - both the previous and current governments have attempted to find the answer in strengthening regional governance. In 2004 the North East was given a referendum on an elected regional assembly. The result (nearly 4 in 5 people voted against it) showed that this form of regionalism was not the answer for the majority of voters. The elected mayor model has had greater success. There are now 14 directly elected Mayors, two more will be elected on 3rd May and at the same time, a further 10 of England’s largest cities will vote on whether or not they want to elect a city Mayor.


But decentralisation in itself does not resolve the issue at Westminster – that of all MPs, wherever they represent, voting on matters, some of which have been devolved elsewhere. A possible solution, ‘English Votes for English Laws’ has gained in currency politically and popularly. A recent YouGov poll for IPPR found that 79% of English voters either agreed or strongly agreed that Scottish MPs should be barred from voting on laws that affect only England. Only 12% disagreed. It is fast becoming a political necessity to find a solution.


However, in reality ‘English Votes for English Laws’ is fraught with technical and constitutional problems, not least that parliamentary bills are rarely ‘English laws’; territorial extent is usually UK, GB or England and Wales. Lines are blurred even where a policy is completely devolved, given under the current Barnett formula spending cuts in England on, say, Health, will have knock on effects on the grant given to the devolved institutions, and so force them to also find cuts. And of course there are implications to creating two-tiers of MP, the likely outcome being a parliament within a parliament.


Which leaves the question of England’s place in the Union. There have been calls for a separate English Parliament but constitutional experts query whether it is sound to create a federation of four nations wherein one is so dominant - representing 85% of the UK population.


The debate on Scottish Independence adds a new dimension and pressure to the debate and while no immediate answer appears to be forthcoming it seems the English question is not going anywhere.