Whether we like it or not, the genie of English devolution has been let out of the bottle. When a Labour dominated Scottish Affairs Select Committee publishes a report recognising the growing sense of injustice felt in England, you know that it’s an issue which all political parties are going to have to come to terms with. But what should we do about it? The three main political parties have three very different approaches. The only thing in common is that they are all flawed and all wrong.
No mainstream Party in Britain has yet had the courage to embrace the logical consequence of devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and that is to offer the people of England a referendum on an English Parliament.
Instead, Labour, for obvious electoral reasons as well as being dominated by the Scottish political mafia, is determined that the status quo should remain. Their preferred option of breaking up England through a series of elected regional assembles has bitten the dust and no one seriously believes it can be resurrected.
The LibDems are obsessed by regionalism but have flirted with the idea of an English parliament. Simon Hughes appeared to come out in favour of it in correspondence with the Campaign for an English Parliament, yet within days he backtracked. Ming Campbell has also made contradictory noises on the subject. If the LibDems had courage they would be seeking to trump the Conservatives on this issue, but their official colour isn’t yellow for nothing.
And what of the Conservatives, who are seen increasingly as an English Party? Their solution to the so-called West Lothian question is to ban Scottish MPs voting on English only issues. Indeed, their Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell adopts this policy himself, by not voting on issues which do not affect his constituency. On the face of it, it appears to solve the problem and is an easy policy to ‘sell’. It comes unstuck when you examine its practical implications. It’s a sticking plaster on the gaping wound of a very injured constitutional settlement. It does nothing to address the increasingly anachronistic Barnett formula, for example.
Telegraph columnist Alice Thomson believes that abolishing Barnett is actually the best way to address the growing sense of English injustice. She writes in the Telegraph today:
His (Gordon Brown's) solution lies in his own department and is suited to his tinkering temperament: scrap the Barnett formula that subsidises public spending north of the border by £1,400 per Scot every year. It must be obvious to the Chancellor that this handout is increasingly unacceptable to the English. It has allowed the Scottish Parliament to bring in free care for the elderly, free nursery places and free tuition at universities, as well as enabling them to build a £431 million parliament building. But as the Economist pointed out this month, representation with no taxation in Scotland hasn't worked. Under the headline "A Lament for Scotland", the magazine argues that devolution has not brought confidence. "Scotland has regressed into an inward-looking, chip-on-the-shoulder, slightly Anglophobic country," according to the report. "It has gained self-doubt, while clinging to an old dependency on England." The Barnett formula, in other words, has encouraged what Mr Brown says he wants to stop - the Scottish being treated as second-class citizens. It has prevented their parliament from being known for anything other than minor scandals and it hasn't encouraged the economy - over the past 10 years, it has grown by one per cent less than England. Mr Brown might lose some seats in Scotland to the SNP, but he would gain in the south for having the courage to address the issue. If he so desperately wants to be prime minister of a United Kingdom, this is the way to do it.
She’s right that it’s one way, but it’s not the best way and it’s certainly not the only way. It will still mean that Scottish MPs can vote on issues which do not affect their own constituents.
Others say the solution is to cut the number of Scottish MPs still further. The size of Scottish constituencies, with one or two exceptions, is now broadly in line with English ones, so that argument doesn’t hold much water.
The only solution to this question, and it's one which the Conservatives would do well to embrace, is to allow a referendum in England on the creation of a Parliament for England.
Having allowed such a referendum in Scotland and Wales Labour would be put in a difficult position. As I say above, having let the genie of devolution out of the bottle it is difficult to see how Labour could argue against such a referendum, although argue against it they surely would.
The Conservatives should now seriously think about how an English Parliament would work. There's nothing anti-Scottish or anti-Welsh in arguing for an English Parliament. There's certainly nothing anti-Scottish or anti-Welsh in arguing that the English people should be given a referendum, just as the Scots and the Welsh had in the late 1990s. This is the debate we should be having - not one about tinkering with parliamentary procedure.