Why the left should back an English Parliament

(This is my response to Jonathan Friedland’s piece. I have also posted it at Nightcap Syndication.)

Ever since Euro 96, when Scottish devolution was already looming on the horizon, the increasing prevalence of the Cross of St George at international sports tournaments has provided graphic illustration of the growth of a renewed sense of English identity.

World Cup 2004 has been no different. Indeed, it may yet mark a turning point, as the moment when Gordon Brown’s differences with Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell over whether Scots should support England finally ignited the long-simmering West Lothian Question.

Brown’s clumsy attempts to curry favour with England supporters only succeeded in highlighting the uncomfortable reality that if he were to become Prime Minister many of his domestic policies would not affect his constituents in Kirkcaldy.

His case wasn’t helped when the Labour-dominated Scottish Affairs Committee unexpectedly decided that this was moment to question whether Scottish MPs should be able to vote on English issues at all.

The political consequences of attempting to answer the West Lothian Question are causing concern among commentators on the both sides of the border.

"A separate England could well be a Tory one-party state for decades to come," warns the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland. "English progressives have relied on the Scots and Welsh as a taming, civilising force. Without them, England could march ever rightward."

Others think it is the Scots who need to be restrained by the English.

"It’s all very well to hark back to the enlightenment and speak of dynamic leaders from the safe haven of London," argues Jenny Hjul of the Sunday Times. "For those of us who live here, however, the prospect of Scotland severed from the UK and left to its own devices is terrifying. We fear that the leaders we have now are the leaders we would be stuck with. We lie awake at night worrying that the former trade unionists and councillors who lead us now would lead us, unrestrained, in the future."

Both of these arguments betray a remarkable distrust of the democratic process, and an equally remarkable faith in the abilities of ‘civilising’ elites untrammelled by accountability to those affected by their decisions.

In fact, MPs have shown themselves capable of some remarkably cavalier decision-making where their own part of the UK is not involved.

Perhaps the clearest example came in March 2005, when the House of Commons voted to impose tuition fees for higher education in Northern Ireland. A majority of Northern Ireland MPs voted against the measure, but many Labour MPs who were known to be against tuition fees voted in favour. It subsequently emerged that many of them did not even know what they were voting for.

One MP who later felt obliged to apologise to the people of Northern Ireland was Tam Dalyell, the author of the West Lothian Question giving perhaps his most practical demonstration of its significance.

Few would deny that government in Northern Ireland has long-suffered from a lack of democratic accountability. England’s democratic deficit may not be on the same scale, but it has still proven decisive in shaping public policy.

The ESRC has called post-devolution England a "laboratory for policy innovation," contrasting it with a Scotland that has chosen to "stick to more traditional policy agendas in health and education."

Ironically, the two most significant occasions when Scottish votes altered English policy outcomes both contributed to this divergence. The votes on foundation hospitals in May 2003, and on student top-up fees in January 2004, would have been lost by the Government but for the support of Scottish MPs whose own Parliament rejected both measures.

English ‘innovation’ may simply reflect the fact that the English policy process is now less democratic than that in Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales.

To date, the big losers from that democratic deficit have not been the Tories but those Labour MPs who have challenged the party hierarchy in the hope of emulating the traditional Labour policies being pursued north of the border.

Simply banning Scottish MPs from voting on English issues will not solve this problem, as its risks leaving a British Government without an English majority, or vice versa. The only consistent solution is an English Parliament.

There is little real reason to fear that such a body would lead to a ‘Tory one-party state.’ Labour lost the popular vote in England by only 0.2 per cent in 2005, and won a majority of English seats. The Government has only had to rely on Scottish votes when it could not win the support of its own English MPs.

Of course, it might be more difficult for Labour to dominate an English Parliament if it were elected by proportional representation, but that would not be so very different from the situation that already prevails in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay.

The left-of-centre case against an English Parliament amounts to the claim that by subverting political democracy in England, New Labour is preserving social democracy. The record shows that in reality, England’s democratic deficit has only served to drive English politics to the right.







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