Muddling through to a very British version of federalism

Michael Keating’s article makes some very significant points but he makes a mistake when he states that ‘English Votes on English Laws would in effect create an English Parliament within Westminster’. It wouldn’t create an English Parliament. Please go to our section on English votes on English Matter and read why it would work!

The Campaign for an English Parliament has long advocated that the only fair answer to the English Question is the creation of an English Parliament.

Article by Michael Keating -Thursday 2 April 2015

It is a peculiar feature of devolution in the United Kingdom that each nation is treated differently, with its own settlement geared to local political demands.

Foreign observers look with puzzlement, seeing it as British pragmatism taken to extremes.

Yet, whether by chance or design, devolution does seem to occur at the same time. 1998 saw devolution laws for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while we have had the White Paper to implement the Smith Commission proposals for Scotland; the St. David’s Day proposals for Wales; the Stormont House Agreement in Northern Ireland; and Conservative promises for English Votes for English Laws at Westminster.

There may be some logic in all this. Wales tends to follow developments in Scotland, with the latest proposals making frequent references to Smith. The National Assembly for Wales gained legislative powers in 2012 and is now to get stamp duty, business rates and borrowing powers. It is promised the Scottish system whereby only the reserved powers (not the devolved powers) are specified, giving greater clarity and scope.

There are common issues across all three devolved territories. One is taxation, with a general move towards more tax powers. Scotland will gain control of all income tax rates, and be allocated half of VAT revenues. Wales may get income tax but only after a referendum, because of a curious convention that the Welsh but not the Scots or Northern Irish need a referendum on major moves to devolution.

The Northern Ireland parties are less keen on income tax, given their poor tax base, but have pushed for control of corporation tax in order to be able to manage the lower rates in the neighbouring Republic of Ireland. The SNP have long demanded this, although no longer promising to cut rates across the board. The UK parties are opposed on the grounds that a general devolution of corporation tax could stimulate tax competition, with a “race to the bottom” in which everyone would lose out.

Yet the UK Government itself has been engaged in tax competition internationally, cutting corporation taxes and resisting moves to harmonize it at the European level. While the UK parties had to be pressed to devolve taxes to Scotland and Wales, Westminster is quite keen to devolve more taxes to Northern Ireland to wean the province off support from London and make its politicians more responsible.

On the other hand, none of the UK parties has had the courage to address the Barnett Formula, which will continue to finance that part of devolved expenditure not covered by devolved taxes. The Conservatives would keep it, although many of their backbenchers see it as unduly generous to Scotland. The Liberal Democrats have dropped their policy of replacing it with a needs-based formula. Labour in Scotland cling to the fiction that Barnett actually is needs-based while their colleagues in Wales denounce it as unfair to them.

This latest round of devolution coincides with a radical overhaul of, and retrenchment in, welfare policy, which has become central to the debate. Labour essentially sticks to the view that, with minor exceptions, welfare must be UK-wide and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats generally agree. Those pushing for more maximum devolution think that more of the welfare programme could be devolved and that the smaller nations might avoid the drastic welfare cuts proposed by the UK Conservatives – this would of course imply paying more in devolved taxes. Most of welfare is theoretically devolved to Northern Ireland but there has been an understanding since the 1940s that the province will match UK standards, with the UK Government meeting the bill. Now it means that Northern Ireland must match welfare cuts, including the ‘under occupancy deduction’ or ‘bedroom tax’. A row over this was one factor that almost brought down the power-sharing executive at the end of last year.

The debate in England, meanwhile, has proceeded on two tracks. One is the demand for English Votes for English Laws, which would in effect create an English parliament within Westminster. Many Conservative MPs insist that this is their condition for supporting further devolution for Scotland although the party leadership has been more ambivalent. Labour is totally opposed to the idea. The other track concerns the internal government of England. After experiments in moving to regional government in the 1970s and again in the 2000s, city-regions are now in fashion. Starting with Manchester, there are moves to strengthen and extend big cities, in what looks like a reinvention of the metropolitan counties abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986.

There is a lot of talk about devolution and empowerment but the city-regions will lack their own revenue-raising powers and be wrapped up in central regulations. The only directly elected member will be the mayor, an idea pursued by both big parties, but which has attracted little popular enthusiasm when it has been proposed.

Constitutional reformers, especially in England, have argued that this all needs to be drawn together in a written constitution for the UK, underpinned by a statement of British values and the purpose of the Union. This is, at least, premature. It would require agreement about what philosophers call the demos and the telos; that is, on who are the “people” and what their common future is. Nation-state constitutions typically have this. Plurinational states like the UK do not. There is no single people in the UK (we do not even have an adjective) or even a set of four clearly-defined peoples. Citizens, rather, have complex identities, which in Scotland run from feeling only Scottish to feeling only British and everything in between.

The Northern Ireland peace settlement explicitly avoids requiring people to adhere to a British identity in order to be part of the political community. Some people in Scotland see the ideal future as independence while others prefer union – there is no shared telos. What is needed for the UK is not a constitution that requires us all to sign up to the same vision of the future, but arrangements that allow us to live together and govern ourselves even where we disagree about the ideal future.

Some people have been arguing that the answer is federalism. If this means a symmetrical federation like the United States or Germany, it is a non-starter since there is almost no demand in England; city-regions are nothing to do with federalism.

If federalism is interpreted more broadly, to refer to accommodating diversity and dividing power, then we may be muddling through to a very British version. It will take a long time, though, and any idea that the latest round of devolution will provide an “enduring settlement” is illusory.

Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change.

Polly Toynbee is the worst kind of Political commentator

For years the Campaign for an English Parliament has predicted the events that Polly Toynbee talks about in the article below. We have advocated a national federal system for the UK and have challenged Polly Toynbee’s head in the sand approach to the situation. So it is extremely disturbing to read her comments especially as she states she ‘is begging the scots to stay’.
So once again the Campaign for an English Parliament will point out to Polly Toynbee, That the UK was meant to be about equally across the UK. It wasn’t meant to be about protecting the unfair allocation of taxes that favour the Scots, it wasn’t meant to be about producing separate political parties for Scotland and Wales whilst ignoring England, it was meant to be about producing manifesto’s for Scotland and Wales whilst ignoring England. It wasn’t meant to be about having First Ministers for Scotland and Wales whilst ignoring England’s need for one.
Polly Toynbee is the worst kind of Political commentator as she has been told on many occasions that the only way the UK can be saved is by establishing an English Parliament but instead of debating the issue of fair representation for England as nation she ignores the obvious answer and instead talks up a north / south divide. The reason the English are concerned about the SNP being the King makers at Westminster is simple. They state that they will put Scottish interests first in their manifesto, their political ideology is not one of equality across the UK but one of putting Scotland first. To be concerned about that is logical and fair.

Polly Toynbee would know that but instead of advocating an English Parliament under a federal system, where the SNP would have a right to vote on UK issues but would be blocked on English issues she instead prefers to advocate ‘begging the ‘Scots to stay’.

What a silly comment to make, only fairness and equality will save the Union!!

Polly Toynbee
No wonder the SNP are confident – the Tories behave as if they want Scotland gone

Polly Toynbee
To discount Scottish votes is to expel them from Westminster and turbo-charge the case for independence

Polly Toynbee 1.0

‘Burning with energy, blessed with an enviably able new leader, the SNP feels like the party of most Labour activists’ secret dreams.’ Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty
Monday 30 March 2015 20.46 BST Last modified on Tuesday 31 March 2015 08.17 BST

Scotland will be gone: it feels almost gone already. In the hall of the SNP conference in Glasgow, the full force of this political tsunami rolled out in every speech at the weekend. Soaring SNP membership, at 103,000, would be equivalent to a UK-wide Labour or Tory party garnering 1.2 million supporters.
Burning with energy, blessed with an enviably able new leader, the SNP feels like the party of most Labour activists’ secret dreams. On the day Labour started selling £5 red mugs emblazoned with “controls on immigration – I’m voting Labour 7 May”, the SNP voted against “discriminatory” immigration laws that “rip families apart”, wanting a welcoming Scottish policy “driven by compassion and common sense”. With motions on more generous benefits, land reform, no fracking, no austerity, no Trident, when Nicola Sturgeon says SNP support would give Labour “backbone and guts”, a good many English Labour party members might nod in agreement.
But English Labour members should be angered by the SNP’s gross misrepresentations of Ed Miliband’s policy. Speech after speech said “Labour and Tories are joined at the hip” on billions of extra cuts, ignoring the Institute for Fiscal Studies report that Labour plans would cut £50bn less than the Tories – with scant need for any cuts. The SNP is often running to catch up with Labour, only now agreeing with Labour’s 50p top tax rate and dropping a beggar-thy-neighbour cut in corporation tax, while boasting of an SNP freeze in council tax since 2008. Nor has the SNP ever dared use the 3p leeway it has to raise income tax. Why not? Because, though the Scots like their closeness to Scandinavia, they are no keener on Swedish taxes than the rest of the UK.

That’s the great quandary. The SNP asserts an elemental Scottish difference in political psyche – more collectivist, more egalitarian. More Scots have a cultural detestation of Tories, but attitudes don’t turn red on crossing the border. Right after that immigration debate, I had a Glasgow taxi driver launching unprompted into a tirade against immigrants stealing Scottish jobs and homes, living on benefits. “It’s not our country any more,” he said. Out canvassing in Glasgow North with Ann McKechin, a good Labour MP hanging by a thread, the first man we talked to, a lifelong Labour voter, said his son couldn’t find work because of the Poles – though Scotland has fewer migrants than England.
Will some day of reckoning come when the SNP finds that Scots are quite British after all? Or can the SNP show Labour that leading boldly from the front, instead of following focus groups, can sway voters leftwards? British Social Attitudes last week found 47.7% of Scots want tax and spend to stay the same, much like 52% of the English and Welsh. Just 7% more Scots are willing to see tax and spending rise. Oddly, in no-fees Scotland, a majority think some or all students should pay tuition fees. Scottish distribution of income is much the same as south of the border.
The SNP faces the election with ebullient confidence: either Labour or Conservative walking into Downing Street is win-win for separatists. A minority Labour government will need SNP acquiescence: it can extract a price. But David Cameron returning to swing his £50bn austerity axe is most likely to propel angry Scots faster to the exit.
Cameron never ruled for a united kingdom, unknowing and uninterested in the effect of his policies on unfamiliar regions. The Welsh are beyond his ken, except when he wants to heap political scorn on their NHS at Prime Minister’s Questions. His southern government has generated pressure for home rule from all those regions outside his comfort zone. Back in his early days, Cameron claimed Harold Macmillan as his model, with a picture of him on his desk. But Macmillan sat for Stockton-on-Tees, with an understanding of Britain learned from that northern town’s suffering in the depression. Cameron’s legacy will not be one nation, but a breaking nation.
Cameron never ruled for a united kingdom, unknowing and uninterested in the effect of his policies on unfamiliar regions
Scotland’s separation is speeded by the reckless opportunism of his response to the SNP surge. That early morning after the no result, a unionist would have embraced the Scots with warmth and solidarity. Instead, he drove a chisel into the rift with his rebarbative threat to punish Scottish MPs: English votes for English laws is a prescription for fragmentation.
The right is virtually ejecting the Scots before they march off. At a Write On! debate in Glasgow’s Mitchell library, one audience member spoke of the outbreak of English Jockophobia, to nods all round. The Tory right and Ukip berate Scots as subsidy junkies, attacking the Barnet formula that shares funds with Scotland, a redistributive glue binding them to the UK.

The most dangerous assault is in those Tory posters showing Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket, a line of argument suggesting Scottish MPs have less legitimacy at Westminster. Salmond says they would “block the Tories” out of government but the SNP has a right to do so if it gets the numbers. It has every right to sustain a minority Labour party in power. If Labour has fewer seats than the Tories, that may feel illegitimate: expect a great howl of Tory rage. But the government’s own fixed-term parliament act obliges any party that can cluster enough MPs to pass its Queen’s speech to take command. To suggest that Scottish votes and Scottish MPs don’t count in that arithmetic is to expel them from Westminster and turbo-charge their case for independence.
Either the Scots are wanted at Westminster – whoever they send as their MPs – or not. It looks now as if the Tories relish their departure, as they so rarely win any votes in Scotland. Sturgeon’s incendiary talk of smashing the system is entirely democratic – and many who vote SNP are not separatists.
Labour expects to haemorrhage Scottish MPs. Jim Murphy earns respect for his plucky fight to defend a third of seats that might be held, but Labour’s Scots identity crisis runs deep. The SNP’s malicious caricature brands every Labour MP equally as a corrupt time-server. Authentic Scottish Labour, no longer a “branch office” of the party in Westminster, needs to keep top talent at Holyrood, after eons of brain-drain southwards.
Those of us begging the Scots to stay may face a bitter truth: in a new world of identity politics, one party can no longer stretch its nature to represent everyone from the Isle of Skye to the Isle of Wight.

1 Comment on "Muddling through to a very British version of federalism"

  1. I don’t know whether you’re aware of it, but the map shows the Isle of Man in the same colour as England. The Isle of man isn’t even in the UK, never mind England.

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