A Parliament or a Union – England Can’t Have Both | A.D.M Collingwood
Who speaks for England? Nicola Sturgeon speaks for Scotland. Michelle O’Neill and, until recently, Arlene Foster spoke for the Northern Irish. The Welsh have Mark Drakeford. Even Gibraltar has somebody – Fabian Picardo. But who gives political voice to the English? Whose job is it to represent their interests and unique needs? The answer, of course, is nobody. Nobody speaks for England because, unlike our Celtic brothers and sisters, and even our Crown Dependencies, England does not have a parliament or an executive.
In fact, it is even worse than that. While Westminster has no say over matters that fall within the purview of the devolved parliaments, the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh MPs sitting in Westminster influence and vote on equivalent issues in England.
It would thus be correct to say that the lack of an English parliament within the present constitutional settlement is unfair and undemocratic. There is no arguing against this. It is the logically necessary conclusion of premises that are facts. But England should not have its own parliament. Or more precisely, England should not have its own parliament if it wants the United Kingdom to exist for long.
Like most of the major policies of Tony Blair’s premiership, devolution turned out to be a wonderful vote-winner for Tony Blair, but a deadly landmine his successors had to tiptoe vigilantly around. As none of the Prime Ministers since have been possessed of the necessary cunning and circumspection, it has exploded, maiming – perhaps for good – the United Kingdom.
Rather than stopping dead the separatist impulse, as it was promised to do, devolution has supercharged it. It has handed the Scottish National Party a constitutional toolset with which to sever apart the Union. It has allowed the SNP to take credit for every success while blaming Westminster for every failure. The SNP has also managed to bend the branches of the Scottish civil service to the nationalist will, making the Scottish ‘state’ apparatus itself an engine for separatism.
The SNP has used these devices ruthlessly and relentlessly, and has brought the Union closer to breakup than at any time since Irish Independence. To assume that no equivalent of the SNP would arise in England after the establishment of an English parliament is to show the same lack of imagination and foresight that got us into this mess to begin with.
It is true that there is no single-issue ‘English independence party’, however, we must assume that if a politician can use something to gain or secure power, she will. And the present fiscal arrangement, within the Barnett Formula, would be the biggest open goal imaginable to any English politician.
Why, our English Sturgeon would ask, should deprived areas of England enjoy any state less support than analogous areas in Scotland? Why should their students have free university tuition? Why should we pay prescription charges?
It would not need a dedicated independence party to ask these questions – just any politician from any party who wanted to score political points (which is to say ‘all of them’). And once one did, they would all have to follow suit: it would be, as Sir Humphrey Appleby might have said, politically ‘courageous’ to campaign against it.
Perhaps those who argue that an English parliament is needed for reasons of fairness would contend that this is exactly why. True enough: it is irrefutably unfair that a poor English neighbourhood has less money spent on it than a similarly down on its luck Scottish suburb.
However, it would place Westminster in the following position: give in to English demands, or create an Independence movement in England. Such an independence movement, and the Parliament that gave it voice, would be a far more potent political force than the Holyrood. In fact, it would be more powerful than the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish nationalist movements and parliaments combined, because England is more powerful than the other nations put together. And not by a little. England’s population, wealth, economy and strategic position massively outmatch the others.
England accounts for 533 (soon 543) of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. Yet if Westminster acquiesced to this huge pressure, what reasons would Scotland have left for subordinating its own strategic interests to Britain?
And here’s the rub. We have become so obsessed with economics in our political discourse on Brexit and Scexit that we have forgotten that England’s strategic and foreign policy interests already quietly dominate in Westminster. If England’s domestic and fiscal interests did, too, Scotland would have no more reason to stay part of the United Kingdom than Britain had to stay in the EU – trade benefits and diplomatic cover.
An English Parliament, and the demands that would almost certainly follow, would ironically make Scotland more like the colony or vassal nation that some of the more fevered members of the SNP imagine it to be now. It would thus, with time, render our august Union virtually untenable.
We can be fair to England or have a union, but it is difficult to imagine we can have both.