According to a new ICM poll for POWER2010, 68 percent of English voters believe that England should have its own Parliament, with similar powers to the Scottish one. An even larger number (70 percent) supported the idea of ‘English votes for English laws’, whereby laws that only affected England could only be voted on by MPs representing English constituencies. Plainly the West Lothian Question, first posed by Labour MP Tim Dalyell in 1977, is long overdue an answer:
For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
My own preference is for an English Parliament, creating a federal United Kingdom, combined with a decisive shift towards fiscal autonomy in each of the Home Nations – i.e. each national assembly or parliament should itself raise the money it spends. This system would not just be vastly fairer than the asymmetric devolution we have now, but would also place a check on the unsustainable growth of government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Moving to this sort of arrangement would actually be fairly simple. First, constitute the English MPs in the House of Commons as an English Parliament with its own first minister and executive, sitting in the House of Commons for two weeks of every month. Then give them the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. This would be far less costly than creating an entirely separate Parliament, and besides, do we really want more politicians?
The UK Parliament would remain responsible UK-wide matters and would control the various departments in charge of them: security and immigration, foreign affairs, international development, defence, employment and social security, energy, constitutional affairs, and aspects of tax economic policy. All the other departments currently serving the UK government would be transferred to the new English one.
Step two: fiscal autonomy. The UK Parliament would retain VAT and National Insurance Contributions, while all other taxes (income tax, corporation tax, excise duties, etc) would be devolved to the national parliaments/assemblies. As well as encouraging greater fiscal responsibility, this arrangement might also encourage intra-UK tax competition – a welcome development for those of us who like lower taxes.
But I suppose the details are less important at this stage than the simple fact that English people are overwhelmingly fed up with a constitutional set-up that disadvantages them at every turn. POWER2010’s poll is another indication that the time is ripe for change. Happy St. George’s Day everyone!