Paul Linford: An answer to the English Question - or just the same old muddle?

The Journal's political columnist looks at the developments this week and asks what - if anything - is in it for the North East

Chris Radburn/PA Wire Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron

On the morning of Friday September 19, hours after the people of Scotland had voted to stay in the UK, David Cameron stood outside 10 Downing Street and promised far-reaching changes in the way the country is governed.

“Now it is time for our United Kingdom to move forward. A vital part of that will be a balanced settlement – fair to people in Scotland and importantly to everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well,” the Prime Minister said.

“Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have a bigger say over theirs. We have heard the voice of Scotland - and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.”

Mr Cameron’s evident determination to deliver on the promises of further Scottish devolution made during the final days of the referendum campaign was no less than the Scots had a right to expect.

But his attempt to couple this with the question of greater English devolution – still more so with finding an answer to the 40-year-old West Lothian Question – was always a nonsense given the lack of consensus over the issue at Westminster.

It was always likely that the Prime Minister would be forced to accept that the timetable for implementing Scottish ‘home rule’ could not be derailed by endless arguments over what to do about England.

And sure enough, the proposals for greater devolution to Holyrood were finally published this week with the ‘English Question’ still no nearer to being resolved.

Two parallel debates have been taking place over the question of how to make good the English element of Mr Cameron’s Downing Street pledge.

One has been about how the Tories can deliver their plan for ‘English votes for English laws’ without ending up in the constitutional chaos of two parallel governments at Westminster.

The possibility of a general election result in which the Tories win the largest number of English seats and Labour the largest number of seats overall makes this more than a mere academic question. As it is, the lack of agreement among the parties means that ‘English votes for English laws’ will almost certainly require the election of a majority Conservative government if it is ever to reach the statute book.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s threat this week that her MPs may start voting on English-only matters has further ratcheted up the pressure over the issue.

But while her stance may cause bitter resentment in some quarters, it actually serves only to highlight the absurdity of the current financial arrangements that govern UK spending. Under the Barnett Formula, Scottish spending on health and other public services is, in fact, determined by how much is allocated to those services in England.

So Ms Sturgeon was entirely right to argue this week that protecting the level of NHS spending in Scotland will almost certainly entail becoming involved in decisions over English health funding.

But alongside the debate over how Westminster should conduct itself, a wider discussion has been taking place about how more power could be devolved to England’s towns and cities.

This week, the Local Government Association demanded a constitutional convention on devolution in England to avoid people south of the border becoming “second class citizens.”

Its chairman David Sparks said: “What’s good enough for the Scottish Government should be good enough for England’s cities and shires too. Our local areas need the same freedoms to tackle the big issues for residents, from health and jobs to welfare and housing.”

Discussions over a bid by the North East Combined Authority for new devolved powers are continuing, though this week’s infighting over its budget does not bode especially well.

But while additional powers for North East councils would undoubtedly be welcome, to see this as an answer to the ‘English Question’ is an error.

Combined authorities are not Parliaments. The North East Leadership Board is not the Scottish Government in Holyrood.

Addressing the constitutional imbalance that gives rise to the English Question will either mean an English Parliament, or a series of regional parliaments with similar devolved powers to those of Scotland and Wales.

Given the lack of public enthusiasm for either, it is more likely we will continue to muddle on as we are.

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