The time is ripe for English devolution
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The three parties’ offer of more devolved powers to Scotland may well help secure a No vote in the referendum. It also means a period of constitutional change will follow the outcome of the vote either way. As someone who thinks we are better together, I hope it works.
The UK constitution was left unbalanced by the last Labour government. They expelled most of the hereditary peers from the Lords but otherwise left the unelected House largely unreformed. They gave substantial devolution to Scotland, less devolution to Northern Ireland and Wales, and nothing to England. They decided not to answer the so-called West Lothian question: why should Scottish MPs vote on English matters such as health and education, which they cannot determine for their own constituencies?
England decided to put up with the injustice in the interests of the union. Today there is a new mood abroad. While the majority of us would like Scotland to stay in the UK, a large majority of us in England now want devolution for our country too.
The easiest way to rebalance the UK would be to grant an English parliament identical powers to those granted to Scotland. We could either have an English parliament at Westminster, formed from the MPs elected from English constituencies, or work towards an entirely new parliament with additional politicians.
This way of sorting out the issue does not appeal to some in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, who rely on non-English MPs to give them more weight in parliament. They have come up with other proposals. But all now agree that there is an English problem.
Labour favours going back to the proposals for elected regional governments in England, which it tried to establish when it was last in office. Its 2004 referendum on an elected assembly in the North East hit the buffers when the electorate rejected it by an overwhelming majority. I doubt the answer would be much different today.
While the latest devolution proposals to Scotland include giving away important tax setting powers, it is difficult to see why anyone would want to increase the fragmentation by wanting different income tax and capital tax rates in the northeast and northwest of England. If Scotland is to set her own tax rates, surely England needs to do the same for itself, but for the country as a whole?
The Liberal Democrats and some others say now the time has come to give devolution to English cities. Why not let Manchester and Leeds control more of their own money and policies? That may well be a good idea, though it is interesting that a majority of the places offered a more powerful elected mayor have turned it down in local referendums. It does not deal with the problems created by more Scottish devolution.
Why should Liverpool have devolution but Wokingham or Clacton or the rural Cotswolds not enjoy the same? Do we really want each different local authority area with devolved powers to be setting different rates of capital gains tax and inheritance tax, as these are some of the powers the Liberal Democrats wish to give to the Scottish parliament?
The three main parties have announced a tight timetable for settling the UK, assuming the Scots agree we are better together. As an MP representing an English constituency I will be happy to help them deliver their promise, on the understanding that we deal with the problem of England at the same time.
What has emerged from the Scottish referendum is the idea of a federal state, with much greater power being exercised in the constituent nations of the union. So be it. What is fair for Scotland now also has to be fair for England. I do not think Scottish MPs at Westminster should vote on English matters in future. We should give English MPs the facilities to govern England in the way the Scottish parliament will govern Scotland.
The writer is the Conservative MP for Wokingham