Most people in England feel disconnected from decisions made at Westminster, but don’t necessarily think an English Parliament is the answer, a BBC survey suggests. Has the moment for it passed?
It’s an idea that has been around for at least 100 years, although calls for the creation an English Parliament reached a crescendo in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, when more powers were promised for the Scottish Parliament.
The clamour has died down for now, as the Westminster political class is consumed by Brexit – but the BBC’s survey suggests the forces behind it have not.
Mike Kenny, professor of public policy at Cambridge University, has argued that the Brexit vote was driven, in part, by a form of English nationalism among voters who felt marginalised and ignored by the political establishment – and yearned for something to identify with.
The BBC survey suggests pride in being English is strongest in areas that voted strongly for Brexit, such as the East and North of England. These are also the areas that feel most disconnected from Westminster and where the support for an English Parliament is it its highest.
Just over half of Leave voters – 52% – back an English Parliament compared with 34% of Remainers.
Prof Kenny sees in the new BBC survey the emergence of two polarised “forms of patriotism” – a pride in being English, which is strongest among older voters in non-Metropolitan areas, and a pride in being British, which is strongest in London among younger people.
The BBC survey puts overall support for an English Parliament at 41%.
This is certainly a higher than in some previous surveys but as a March University College London report on options for an English Parliament pointed out, it has never been a particularly high priority for voters.
Polls suggest voters have been more keen on “barring non-English MPs from voting on English-only matters at Westminster – a change which was not delivered by the 2015 ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) procedures”, adds the UCL Constitution Unit’s report.
We will come to English Votes for English Laws later.
But why was an English Parliament not set up when new Parliaments for Scotland and Wales were established by Tony Blair’s Labour government in the late 1990s?
Tony Blair’s Labour government thought the Scottish Parliament would kill Scottish nationalism stone dead, says Jack Sheldon, co-author of the Constitution Unit report.
In fact, the opposite happened.
At the same time, the idea of home rule for England, previously seen as an obsession of the far right and and obscure corners of academia, began to gain more widespread support – another development Labour failed to anticipate or, say critics, preferred not to think about.
“I don’t think Labour were particularly interested in the English question,” says Jack Sheldon, who now works with Prof Kenny at Cambridge.
Analysis by Mark Easton, BBC Home editor
Many in England look enviously at the authority devolved to the other UK nations, complaining that English local government has been emasculated, as central government has become more distant. Only 13% of people think politicians in Westminster reflect their real concerns.
Prioritising England’s affairs, even if that threatens the United Kingdom, is a policy supported by a quarter of English residents, according to our survey, a figure that appears to rise to a third in counties like Lincolnshire and towns like Rotherham and Wakefield.
One proposal is that England should have its own Parliament, an idea included in the UKIP manifesto at the last election. Roughly four people in 10 support the creation of such a body, rising to half the population in parts of Essex, for example.
But the survey suggests greater enthusiasm for a form of devolution that also enjoys broader political support (even if it draws blank looks from many), introducing combined authorities.
Few dinner tables echo joyously to fevered debate about a new tier of public administration for England, so it is remarkable that, after a brief explanation of their function, our poll finds almost half the population (48%) support having a combined authority in their area.
Tony Blair’s first Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, was once quoted as saying the best thing to do about the West Lothian question was to “stop asking it”.
“National identities usually strengthen when people feel hard done by. Today’s English identity reflects a growing sense that English people lack a real voice on the things that matter to them,” wrote former Labour MP John Denham in a 2012 article for the IPPR think tank.
Worse, he added, “they feel they are losing out and being treated less fairly than others”.
Tony Blair wanted to hand more power to Scotland and Wales but was firmly against the idea of a federal United Kingdom, along German lines, where central government passes broad “framework” legislation and regional government fills in the detail.
Instead of an English Parliament, Mr Blair preferred to give the English regions a boost – and their own voice – through devolved assemblies.
But despite an energetic campaign by his deputy, John Prescott, the idea was killed off in 2004 when the North-East of England – the area chosen as a test bed for the plan – overwhelmingly rejected it in a referendum.
Looking back, says Prof Kenny, Labour’s decision to base their proposed administrative units on EU regions – lashing together parts of the country like Tyneside and Teesside that had little in common culturally or, as the BBC survey suggests, were active rivals, – was probably a mistake.
He is “slightly surprised” by the apparent popularity of the Conservative government’s combined authorities, new bodies made up council leaders in nine regions in England, such as Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield City region.
These were were backed by 48% of respondents to the BBC poll (although 34% were “don’t knows” and the survey suggests the newly elected metro mayors have some work to do make voters aware of their existence).
The combined authorities at least have the virtue of not creating a new class of politician, argues Prof Kenny, just a single elected “metro Mayor,” such as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester.
(One cast iron rule of devolution appears to be that voters want more local control but not more politicians).
Which brings us back to the English Parliament, which after a long and lonely campaign by the English Democrats party and latterly UKIP, briefly burst on to the Westminster scene after the Scottish referendum.
Then Prime Minister David Cameron’s solution to growing calls for an English Parliament – to balance the promise of more powers for the Scottish Parliament – was “English Votes for English Laws”.
Put as simply as possible, English Votes for English Laws allows MPs representing constituencies in England (and England and Wales) the opportunity to veto certain legislation that applies only in England (or England and Wales).
Labour was firmly opposed to the idea, arguing it would create two classes of MPs and threaten the stability of the Union.
Mr Cameron claimed it would address the feeling of “resentment” felt in some parts of the UK that “undermines the bonds and the fellow-feeling that are the basis of the United Kingdom”.
In fact, critics say, neither of these things has so far happened.
“English Votes for English Laws is a much more modest set of changes than you might have been let to believe from the controversy that surrounded it.” says Daniel Gover, of Project EVEL, which monitors the new law,
“And I think that has been borne out by the way it has operated so far.”
There have been 33 Commons votes under the EVEL procedures since they became law in October 2015, and “not one of them has had the outcome changed as a result of EVEL”, he adds.
“English Votes for English Laws is definitely not the equivalent of an English Parliament.”
This was partly by design, says Mr Gover, but is also a reflection of the current make-up of the Commons, with one party, the Conservatives, having a comfortable majority in England.
It might become a live issue if a future Labour government had rely on SNP votes to keep it in power, he suggests.
And, as all the experts are keen to point out, there are other ways of giving England a voice that don’t involve expensive new glass and steel parliament buildings – such as a “grand committee” at Westminster to decide on English-only laws.
Perhaps, suggests Jack Sheldon, if Brexit fails to deliver on its promise of a better life and more control for the “left behind” they will start to look around for another issue to get behind.
And an English Parliament might be it.
But instead of rushing head long into it, with only a “vague” idea of what the finished product might look like – as he suggests happened with Brexit – he and and co-author Meg Russell have called for the establishment of a “citizen’s convention” to take a serious look at the different options.