This week it was St George’s Day, a time when we in England reflect on what it is to be English – a few of us do anyway, especially when St George himself was so un-English. There was also a small flair in the ongoing campaigning over Scottish independence, when the British government poured cold water on the idea of a currency union between an independent Scotland and the what is left of the UK (which would no longer be a united kingdom…). As I have written before, it is a conceit that there is a Scottish problem for the UK. The issue with Scotland is just an aspect of the English problem. England so dominates the union that governance of England and governance of the UK get confused. We need to look at remaking the constitutional arrangements for the whole UK if Scotland, as expected, decides to stay in the union at their referendum next year. But how?
At this point it is all to easy to craft elegant new constitutional solutions to solve the problem. Alas, that is not how the British constitution works. We are deeply conservative. Any proposed change throws up a series of opponents, who are able to stoke up fear of change. The AV referendum in 2011 was a very painful experience for people who thought that sensible constitutional reform, or even sensible debate about reform, was an easy matter. So where does that get us?
First there must be a crisis. Most people must think that the current situation is intolerable. The crisis is presented by the Scots. Of course, if they vote to stay in the union, most English politicians will want to think that it is an end to matter, and we can go on as before. I don’t think many Scots think this, though. Even holding the referendum is a shocking event, showing that consent for the current British constitution is breaking down. Most think that if they lose the referendum, the Scottish National Party (SNP) will respond by pressing for “Devo-Max”, which will then look like a sensible middle way. Devo-Max implies a much greater level of devolution to the Scottish Parliament, leaving the UK responsible for just defence and foreign affairs in some readings, like Gibraltar, perhaps. Why, then should Scottish MPs have so much say in who governs England? This question is an irritant now, but it would become a much bigger deal. We need to head this problem off with a new constitutional settlement for the whole of the UK.
Second, messing with the sacred sovereignty of the House of Commons is to be avoided. To some people, including me, this is pompous twaddle. A parliament’s fitness for purpose is not derived from history, but from what it actually does. The people should be sovereign. But the sheer weight of traditions and interests that centre on the Commons is not to be trifled with. This body needs to rule all of the UK. Restricting its scope to England, for example, and having a new Federal Assembly is going to get nowhere. And after the AV fiasco, changing the electoral system is off the agenda too.
And thirdly, there needs to be something for everybody in any new settlement. Each of the three main British political parties, and their backers should see at least some benefits, to weigh against inevitable threats. There will not be a consensus, but any new proposal must have broad support from a cross a wide spectrum.
And so to the English problem. In order to balance out devolution to Scotland (and to Wales and Northern Ireland) there must be an equivalent devolution to England. To many the sensible thing to do would be to establish English regional governments, of the same sort of size as Scotland, to give an overall shape resembling Spain or Germany. Elegant an idea as this may look, though, it has no legs. Local traditions in England have been so hollowed out over the centuries, unlike in Germany or Spain, that there is little in the way of tradition to build on. The English administrative regions, used for things like elections to the European Parliament are mostly named after points of the compass. London and Yorkshire, may be viable, but it ends there. Either identities are too diverse (the Celtic Cornwall compared to the Saxon Devon, for example) or else there is very little identity at all (where does Northampton belong to?). Constitutional change is hard: this is too hard.
Which leaves us with an English Assembly. I used to dismiss this as a nonsense, but it is growing on me. This should have equivalent power to the Scottish Parliament, whatever those are. That means an English First Minister and cabinet, control of education and the NHS, and, surely, over large chunks of tax. The bold, but necessary, step is to say that the capital of England should not be in London. Having it in the same city as the UK capital will make its identity and authority harder to establish, especially since London has its own mayor, making the layer of government very crowded. Moving the UK Parliament and the paraphernalia of government out of London is too much as well. Besides there is a real grievance in much of England that too much of the establishment is based in London. Where? Geography points to Birmingham or Coventry; others may have better ideas. An old and grand but under-utilised Victorian classical building would be good to use as a base. Building a brand new building is asking for trouble. Like the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, it should be elected under proportional representation (PR).
So what would be left in London? The House of Commons would stay, but needs to be shrunk. It probably doesn’t need more than a couple of hundred MPs, but no doubt a compromise of 400 or so would have to be settled on. It is difficult to get turkeys to vote for Christmas. The House of Lords should be reformed too, though it is tempting to let it collapse under its own absurdity after last year’s reform fiasco. The UK cabinet would be shrunk. The Treasury, Foreign Office and Defence would stay much as is, as would much of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. But others would need to be shrunk down.
So how to sell it? To those in the north of England or Midlands, breaking the Whitehall stranglehold would be an advantage. Frankly this is a big attraction to me, even in London. Even under PR, the Conservatives would have a good stab at dominating the English government. Both they and Labour would benefit from PR giving them a political base in large swathes of the country where they are in danger of extinction – as PR has saved the Tories in Scotland and Wales. The Lib Dems would benefit from PR too, though they might lose out badly in the bigger and redrawn constituencies for the House of Commons. This losing out of the Lib Dems might be an attraction to both Labour and Conservatives, though – they might feel that they have a better shot at an overall majority for the UK if minor parties would struggle in the larger constituencies. Such are the sorts of calculations upon which British politics turn.
Food for thought, anyway. The next step, though, is to start talking up the idea of a UK Constitutional Convention if the Scots vote to stay in the union. The idea of an English assembly does have opinion poll support, though no doubt iti s very soft. But in small steps the idea can grow momentum.