Siol nan Gaidheal

Real devolution and England's parliament

Another newspaper article contributed by a forum member, which appeared in The Scotsman 12th March 2001. As a uniquely English perspective of devolution, it was felt to merit reproduction - so here it is.

Real devolution and England's parliament

If someone had asked me four or more years ago whether England should have its own parliament, I probably would have been stuck for an answer. The question had never entered my head. Maybe that was because like most English people I subconsciously looked on the British Parliament at Westminster as England's parliament anyway.

England is far and away the biggest of the home nations. It has over 500 of the 650 MPs. It is where the vast bulk of the wealth and the population is, and the parliament is in England's capital city, where it has always been since it was established in the 13th century. I suppose I just instinctively assumed that really the Union of 1707 made no difference at all to England. What is more, if and when I gave any thought to Welsh and Scottish nationalism, I think I looked on it like any other English person did - if the Scots and the Welsh wanted independence, why not? It makes no difference to England. And what would be the point of a union anyway if two of the nations in it wanted out?

Then in 1998 the Scots got their own parliament and the Welsh their assembly. And two things happened in my head. Two contradictory things in a way. One was, the way the government's devolution programme actually worked, it confirmed my way of thinking. The Scots got a parliament and the English didn't. A parliament for England never entered the debate. No-one in Westminster proposed it and at that time not a soul that I know in England proposed it either. The indifference in England was overwhelming. Why? Because, it seemed to me, as far as the country's controlling political and business interests were concerned, a Scottish parliament seemed to make no difference. For them it just didn't seem to matter.

England is where the wealth and the power are and a parliament on the fringe just didn't rate. Not establishing an English parliament along with the Scottish parliament was really their way of saying that Scotland is peripheral and what they get up to up there is of no real significance. Who cares? So long as the things they really are interested in - taxation, macro-economic matters, defence, armament production and foreign affairs - are controlled from Westminster, which is the ancient seat of English government, the Scots can have what they like. And if Scotland has its own extra bits of representation at Brussels and can squeeze more money out of the EU, all to the good. The powers- that-be know how to take from that too. And if the Scottish parliament helps to keep the natives quiet, and distracted with its illusions of power, well, even better.

There can be no stronger, clearer statement that for the powers-that-be not giving England a parliament meant that the new Scottish parliament was barely worth a string of beans. It was the biggest insult to Scotland since they closed down the old Scottish parliament in 1707. If an English parliament had been set up along with the Scottish one, and one for Wales too, of course, with the same powers, then there would have been real devolution. That would have meant that Westminster was serious about devolution and wasn't just casting a few sops at the feet of some disgruntled Scots to keep them quiet.

If England had been given its own parliament distinct from Westminster (the British parliament), it would have been saying that the British parliament is not English, is distinct from England, that all the three nations are constitutionally equal and Britain is a union of political equals. There neither is nor can there be any serious and genuine devolution in Britain unless and until England has a parliament in parity with Scotland. When England has its parliament, then and then only has genuine devolution of Westminster power to Scotland and Wales begun to happen. An English parliament by reason of the size, wealth and power of the English nation, possessing the powers the Scottish parliament, will make a genuine devolutionary change to Westminster, and not the cosmetic one that exists now. Westminster will have to undergo serious structural reforms, such as the present devolution to Scotland and Wales has not required. Then and only then will the new Westminster become a parliament of British nations and not, as at present, a collection of constituencies that does not consider national boundaries.

The present government hasn't realised that yet. They really didn't think through what they were doing when they set up the Scottish parliament. They just thought it would be happy-clappy stuff that would silence the Scottish Nats once and for all. This government is a very shallow government. When England gets its own parliament, Westminster will then be more than a collection of constituencies organised into political parties. It will also be of its very nature organised into and representative of the three countries of England, Scotland and Wales. That will give real power to Scotland and Wales such as they simply do not have at present in Westminster. The change will be fundamental. That will be real devolution. But not until England has its own parliament. Until that moment the Westminster parliament, which is where the power is, remains what it's always been, England's parliament; and the Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly are intended as sops to keep the peripherals happy.

Then there was my second thought or perspective on devolution, very different from the first. I looked at what the Prime Minister wrote in his preface to the Scottish Devolution Bill White Paper. "Scotland", he wrote, "is a proud historic nation in the United Kingdom and the plans we put forward in this White Paper will give it an exciting new role within the United Kingdom." The Scottish parliament was granted to Scotland as to a distinct nation. That is the crucial significance of everything that has happened. The Scottish parliament is the statement, not just any statement but the defining and historic statement, of its nationhood, of its national identity and culture. It gives to every Scottish person a definite feel for their Scottish identity. And that's the way it's working out.

The Scottish parliament and executive have total responsibility for education and the arts in Scotland. Through the school curriculum, Scottish children are now being reared and educated to have a strong Scottish identity and knowledge of Scottish history. Similarly, art programmes promote a distinct Scottish culture. Now, if anyone were to ask Mr Blair and his cabinet, of which a numerically disproportional number are Scottish, if they will say that England is likewise a proud historic nation and if they will promote English culture and English identity, they will recoil with horror claiming the proposition is jingoist and racist. With, that is, the one single exception of Jack Straw. The Home Secretary is on the record saying that "he speaks of his pride in being English and of the need for the English people to strengthen their identity as English for the sake of the Union".

For the following Scots and Welsh ministers - Blair, the Prime Minister; Brown, the Chancellor; Cook, the Foreign Secretary; Liddell, the Scottish Secretary; Reid, the Northern Ireland Secretary; MacDonald, the Transport Minister; Prescott, the Deputy PM and Environment Secretary; McCartney, the Cabinet Office; Smith, the Arts and Culture Secretary; Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor; and Darling, the Social Security Minister; any talk of England as a nation and of English nationalism is an object of horror. In 1998, they embraced Scottish and Welsh nationalism with enthusiasm in order to win the referenda. They shared platforms with the SNP and Plaid Cymru and hugged them on camera on the night of the vote. So Scottish and Welsh nationalism is very, very good. But English nationalism is nasty. In 1997, at his first Labour Conference as Chancellor, Brown spoke of "the nations of Britain". Now no longer.

In a speech - to the Manchester Chamber of Trade in January - he made a subtle change. He spoke of "the nations and regions of Britain". By "the nations" he means Scotland and Wales; by "the regions" he means a divided England. The push is now to split England into different regions, competing against each other for resources, turning England into what commentator and former Observer editor Will Hutton has recently described as "a witches' brew of internecine rivalries". The nationhood, unity and national identity of Scotland and Wales were defined and promulgated in the devolution settlement of 1998. For these Scottish and Welsh ministers, who are in effect the British Government, their next step is to balkanise England. As Charles Kennedy, their fellow Scot, put it at the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference at Dunfermline in October 1999: "Scotland has a Parliament, Wales an assembly, Northern Ireland, soon I hope, a working assembly too. In England regionalism is growing as never before, calling into question actually the idea of England itself."

That was my second reflection. I realised that culturally and nationally, the devolution settlement was an important and historic instrument. England as England was under threat. I realised that England was losing out. Not economically but culturally and politically. I realised that in the Blair-Brown-Prescott (Scottish-Welsh) devolution settlement England as a nation and a unity, possibly the oldest nation state in Europe, will be extinguished. I realised with frightening clarity that my own Englishness is set to be extinguished. If England is divided into competing regions each with their own parliament, each region about the same population size as Scotland's, the very nationhood of England has been extinguished, while the nationhood of Scotland and that of Wales have been proclaimed for all future generations. I realised that without an English parliament there would be no Englishness. England as a national unity endured within the United Kingdom because the United Kingdom Parliament was made up of members who were not representative of countries but of constituencies irrespective of national origin. Within that framework England, Scotland and Wales were recognised, not as distinct nations politically, but as distinct nations historically and culturally. That settlement was ended after 300 years in 1998.

In 1998 Scotland and Wales as nations got political recognition. England did not. Politically, Scotland and Wales exist. England does not. It does not have its parliament in parity with Scotland to initiate legislation programmes which address the needs of England. England has no vehicle or instrument to promote its own distinct culture and sense of self-identity. England is in fact a non-entity, made all the more so by the very fact that both Scotland and Wales in different degrees have those instruments. This situation is made worse by the fact that there is no aspect of English life where Scottish MPs cannot have a direct say and a vote, whether as ministers in the British Parliament or just as MPs. There is no aspect of English life for which Scottish ministers cannot initiate legislation. But in some 80 per cent of Scottish matters, some of immense governmental and cultural importance, like education, transport, health, agriculture, sport, the arts, training, the law, the prison, police and the fire service, the environment, forestry and fisheries, no English MP has any say whatsoever.

It is not just a constitutional absurdity. It is also a constitutional injustice of huge proportions. And - I say this as an English person - it is a national humiliation. AND if this situation can be made even worse, it is being made worse by the combined efforts of Scottish and Welsh ministers in Westminster and Scottish MPs, many in English seats (significantly there are no English men and women in Scottish and Welsh seats), to balkanise England into regions of government which will eliminate the national unity of England. Scotland for all its immense cultural, linguistic, economic and geographical diversity, was not balkanised into competing regions. Its parliament was restored as to one nation.

In summary, the 1998 devolution settlement was for me a contradictory and deeply-disturbing mixture. It left the main instruments of British government in London, implying that economically Scotland and Wales are not significant. Yet explicitly it gave recognition to the distinctive nationhood of both Scotland and Wales, which from that basis will grow and expand in every possible way; and de facto denied the distinctive nationhood of England. In that way it gave to Scotland and Wales the endorsement and the means to promote their own national culture and identity, while allowing no such instruments to England. Worse, the devolution now being planned by this Scots/Welsh-led British government for England is the balkanisation of England and the extinguishing of Englishness. I myself therefore will not rest, nor cease from mental fight, until England has its own parliament from which to build its new Jerusalem.

©: Michael Knowles (who is Secretary of the Campaign for an English Parliament), The Scotsman 12th March 2001

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