Will the LibDems support an English Parliament?

Peter Black said in his blog last weekend that he had been reading David Melding's book, Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?


This is what particularly interested me:

The book particularly focussed my thoughts on present Liberal Democrat policy which has been for some time the sort of federal state that David now advocates that the Tories should support. Our policy has been based on the regionalisation of England, which of course is a valid option but does not seem to have any support amongst voters and would be difficult to implement. David makes an excellent case for an English Parliament and argues that checks and balances could be written into the constitution to ensure that England would not overly dominate a Federal Union. This would include the House of Lords becoming an elected Federal second chamber.

It is clear that it would make sense to revisit Liberal Democrat policy along these lines by updating our commitment to federalism so as to make it fit into where we are now starting from. It also appears that it would be far easier to get general acceptance for an English Parliament within a reformed UK constitution than we would for regional parliaments.

Quite frankly, I'm amazed. To me this has always been a blind spot for the LibDems, as it was for the Liberals before them.

The UK is an over-centralized state, both politically and economically. Indeed I believe that one perpetuates the other in a vicious circle. To their credit, the Liberals have always (at least in my political memory) favoured a more federalized state as a means of breaking that circle. But their problem was that their thinking was based on the UK as a whole. Therefore, devolution for Wales and Scotland was fine, but England was simply to big to be devolved in the same way. So the only solution they could see was to break England up into smaller pieces roughly equal in size to Wales or Scotland.

Although this might be seen as a "logical" solution in terms of utility, it completely failed to address people's sense of self identity. It worked for Wales and Scotland because people saw themselves as Welsh or Scottish (whether or not they also saw themselves as British) but it could never work for England because people put any identity as "North West Englanders" after their more fundamental identity as simply "English". Indeed it is impossible to describe yourself as being from "the North East" unless it is understood that this means "North East England".

But the Liberals, and then the LibDems, stuck with it as a policy. And when they managed to persuade Labour of the merits of it, Labour tried to set up directly elected regional assemblies (unelected regional assemblies already existed, consisting in the main of appointees from local councils) but people in England didn't want them. They probably saw the attempt to break up England as some sort of sinister EU plot to divide and rule.

Yet, equally, people in England are very well aware that Wales and Scotland now have a measure of self government that they do not have. Rhodri Morgan might flatter himself that the English are "jealous" of us because of things like free prescriptions, but anyone who gives the matter any thought would realize that the only thing they would really be jealous of is the ablity we have to make some decisions about our own priorities for ourselves.


Peter Black's conversion appears to have come about by reading David Melding's book. However the chances of David Melding's views becoming Conservative Party policy are virtually nil. The Tories seem set on tinkering at the constitutional edges rather than ever doing anything so radical. Their policy seems to be to keep things as they are as much as possible, so long as they deny Scottish MPs the right to vote on English issues.

But Peter Black probably does have some chance of getting the LibDems to change their policy, and I wish him luck in getting it adopted. After all they have nothing to lose, since no-one was much interested in their old policy. But would it make any difference? Would the LibDems ever have the opportunity of being in power in order to implement it? Hardly.

But maybe, just maybe, the LibDems will find themselves holding the balance of power in a hung Westminster. And even if they don't they might find themselves pleasantly surprised at the increased support they get in England ... since at present the only parties that support an English Parliament are confined to the fringes. It won't make any difference to their support in Wales.


Of course for us in Wales, the advantages are obvious. If the English decide that they want their own Parliament (or Assembly, or whatever) we can guarantee that they will not give themselves fewer powers than the Scottish Parliament has. And that means that we in Wales would get the same powers as both instead of the half-baked mishmash we have at present ... and still will have, even after a referendum that will leave us a long way short of the powers and responsibilities the Scottish Parliament has had for the last ten years.

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Anonymous said...

MH - I agree with your general analysis, but I think that you underestimate the reluctance of Whitehall to give up any more powers. I expect that a future English parliament will follow the Scottish model as you suggest, but that they will still apply an England & Wales territory to certain area, for example criminal justice. We will still have an assymetrical settlement, but with a different centre of gravity.

Anonymous said...

Yes......EnglundandWales. That place again.

Anonymous said...

Prescott spiked devolution within England when he invented a region called the 'North East' - a place that no-one ever said they came from. Now, Yorkshire, Tyneside, or Northumberland - that would have stood a chance!

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