Friday, 8 December 2006

Why Unionists and Nationalists must support calls for an English Parliament

The Sunday Telegraph's ICM poll a fortnight ago has generated plenty of column inches in discussing Anglo-Scottish relations. Passionate defences of the Union matched by bitter calls for separation (by nationalists on both sides of the border). But among all this, the most popular option among those polled- an English Parliament- has mostly been ignored.

68% of English people polled said they want an English Parliament with similar powers to the Scottish Parliament, while just 48% want complete independence. But the idea of a devolved English Parliament has been attacked by unionists and nationalists alike: the former believing an English Parliament will eventually lead to the break-up of the UK, the latter arguing the Union should be broken now. However, instead of attacking the idea, both unionists and nationalists should be supporting calls for an English Parliament.

What all unionists must understand is that England’s disenchantment with the Union stems from the asymmetric devolution settlement created in 1999. While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been granted devolved assemblies to handle domestic affairs and provide a voice for that nation within the UK, England remains the only part of the UK governed solely by Westminster. Instead, England has been balkanised into regions, despite the fact that people in England do not want their country divided so by regional assemblies. Indeed, the only part of England to be given a referendum on a regional assembly voted overwhelmingly against the idea- only to have an unelected regional assembly forced upon them, the same as across the rest of England. It is not right, and the ICM poll showed that the people of England are not happy about it.

A devolved English Parliament- i.e. a parliament within the Union, is essentially a unionist response to devolution. Treat each part of the UK the same and it will remain united. To state that an English Parliament will lead to the break-up of the Union is wrong: no-one knows for sure what the future holds. And besides, it was not a barrier to those creating assemblies for the rest of the UK. An English Parliament is the only hope the Union has of taming the rising anger in England, because quite simply, if the people of England have to forego a devolved parliament of their own for the sake of the Union, they will seek the end of the Union instead.

But while unionists must support calls for an English Parliament, nationalists in England must too. The fact is that, if the prospect of a devolved English Parliament seems unlikely in the near future, then England breaking from the UK altogether is even further off. Political parties hold most of the cards in setting the political agenda, and while sections of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are coming round to the idea[1], they are not at all warming to the idea of independence for England. In Scotland, however, it is different. If the polls are correct, there could be a Scottish National Party-controlled Scottish Parliament in 2007, with an independence referendum following soon after. Had Scotland voted SNP beforehand, a betting man would put his money on Scotland voting in that referendum for independence.

Now, some of the most difficult, complex and controversial negotiations in Britain’s history would then take place: negotiating the end of the Union. Separating Scotland- so closely integrated within the Union- from the UK, would be extremely complicated. Who would have the North Sea oil? If Scotland took the lion’s share of the oil, would the rest of the UK be compensated for the investment in the facilities used for obtaining the oil? What of the UK’s land-based nuclear weapons, all based in Scotland? How much of the UK’s national debt would Scotland take with it? Suffice as to say, it would not be easy. But just as important as the issues themselves would be the people negotiating them. For Scotland, their First Minister. For the UK, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair? Born and educated in Edinburgh, responsible for the balkanisation of England, and someone who believed the West Lothian Question wasn’t a problem?

One could assume that, should Gordon Brown be UK Prime Minister by that time, that he would leave the UK Parliament, as his constituency would soon no longer be part of the UK. But should we assume? Who is to say that Mr. Brown, who sees no problem in being the West Lothian incarnate on becoming UK Prime Minister, would not resign until his country had formally left the UK after negotiations had finished? Of course, Wales and Northern Ireland, just as they have a voice in UKRep in the UK’s dealing with the EU, would have a voice through their national Executives. But England? Not only doesn’t England have a parliament and Executive of its own, there isn’t a Secretary of State for England, nor does England have a formal representative on UKRep, no separate voice within the UK. Just as has been the case in recent times, while all other parts of the UK have a separate voice, England would be represented by the UK.
Ridiculous? Absurd? Would never happen? Why not. It is ridiculous and absurd that England has been treated as it has by the UK in recent times, so such a scenario should not be dismissed. England must have a Parliament if the Union is to survive, but equally it must have a Parliament before the Union nears its end. Unionists and Nationalists take note.

[1] An Ipsos Mori poll from June 2006 found that an English Parliament was the most popular of three options among Lib Dems (50%) and Conservatives (46%).

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