When I filmed an episode of Dinner with Portillo earlier this year, in which we discussed Scottish independence, Timothy Garton Ash accused me of wanting England to be just like Switzerland – a position he said was perfectly respectable, but not one he shared. And truth be told, that is almost exactly what I would like: an independent England, outside the EU, with a high degree of internal decentralization, and as little power as possible vested in the central government. That said, however, I’m a realist and I know my Alpine nirvana won’t be realised here any time soon. But I think that giving England its own Parliament, and ending the constitutional anomalies that have existed ever since power was devolved to Holyrood, is the least one could ask for. This is a policy I would encourage the next government to start looking into as soon as possible.
I’d rather not add an additional layer of national politicians though (we’ve got more than enough as it is) so the first step would be a simple one: have the English MPs in the House of Commons sit for three days a week as a separate English Parliament, which would elect its own first minister, who would then appoint a cabinet. This English Parliament would, as a start, have the same powers as the Scottish one (putting the Welsh Assembly on an equal footing at the same time might also make sense). The relevant government departments (Health, Education, Transport, etc) would be transferred from the UK government to the English one. This shift ought to be coupled with a decisive move towards fiscal autonomy for each of the Home Nations – every national parliament should be made responsible for raising the money that it spends. In the short term, the easiest way to accomplish this would be keep VAT and National Insurance as UK taxes, while devolving everything else.
This would certainly be a major shift in British constitutional policy, but it should also only be a first step. Further powers – over welfare and benefits, for example – should be devolved as soon as practical, eventually leaving only defence, foreign, and security policy at the UK level. Moreover, even within the Home Nations power should be pushed downwards to local government, or better still to individuals.