“No taxation without representation” was the rallying cry for American colonists in their revolution against British rule. The principle of fair representation and accountability, based on British ideals, shaped the US constitution and is the foundation of democracies worldwide. In the UK, it continues to shape our evolving political system; the Scotland Act 2012 grants the Scottish Parliament enhanced financial powers and the Silk Commission on Devolution in Wales recommends a “package of powers that would improve the financial accountability of the (Welsh) Assembly”. Among these recommendations are the devolution of Business Rates, Stamp Duty Land Tax, Aggregates Levy, Landfill Tax and elements of Air Passenger Duty. Moreover, the report recommends that “the Welsh Government should have responsibility for setting income tax rates in Wales,” with the Welsh Government being able to “vary the basic, higher and additional rates of tax independently.” The practicalities of devolving taxation powers are complex, and it is unlikely that devolving income tax varying powers will be politically possible without a referendum. However, the agreement reached between the Welsh Government and HM Treasury in October, stating that the Welsh Government will be able to borrow money to finance capital spending if a new source of income via taxation can be found, indicates the direction of thinking at Westminster.
Enhancing the accountability of the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government should be welcomed as a key development in Wales’ maturing devolution settlement; however, the benefits of accountability in Wales are undermined if they worsen the democratic deficit which exists elsewhere. The continued right of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland’s MPs to vote on English-only legislation as it passes through Westminster remains the biggest unsolved anomaly of the devolution project. Devolving taxation powers to Scotland and Wales only deepens this accountability deficit. Welsh and Scottish MPs voting on taxes raised in England which are not raised in their own constituencies thanks to powers enjoyed under devolution, or which are levied at a different rate, will bring a whole new dynamic to the West Lothian Question; taxation without equal representation. In addition to this unfairness, the complexities of resolving this conundrum by changes to parliamentary procedure alone are increased if different taxation powers are devolved to Wales and Scotland.
In this situation, the logic of a devolved English Parliament as part of a fair and equal Union becomes clear. Set within the context of a fair funding settlement which maintains the security of the United Kingdom as a political, economic and social union, an English Parliament would allow governments in all four corners of the UK to pursue their own priorities and policies, and raise their own taxes, accountable only to those which they apply to. At the same time it would maintain institutions which preserve universal welfare standards, our common history, and our standing on the world stage.
In 2014 Scotland faces a historic referendum on independence. Wales’ maturing devolution settlement should be seen as no less significant, and over the next few years the United Kingdom faces its greatest challenge since the Irish Home Rule crisis. A fair settlement for England in this changing union is as important as any other; with 53 million people representing 85% of the UK’s population, answering the ‘English Question’ is paramount. Unionists at Westminster must accept that unionism must adapt if the Union is to survive. Otherwise, if accountability in one corner of the UK is enhanced without efforts to resolve the deepening deficit elsewhere, cries of “no taxation without representation” may come to characterise the collapse of the United Kingdom.
Matt Francis is a member of the Campaign for an English Parliament