James Cleverley discusses the debate around an English Parliament.
Events of the last few years, from Brexit to covid, have posed major questions for the constitutional future of the UK. Nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales are gathering momentum and it is clear that the status quo is no longer good enough, with many across the United Kingdom feeling increasingly disconnected with Westminster politics. Most on the left agree on the need for greater devolution within England. In 1997, Labour in Government launched the biggest devolution programme ever seen, creating the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Senedd and the Mayor of London. Almost 25 years later, Labour must be bold in its approach towards bringing politics closer to the people.
There is a strong argument for regional assemblies to be set up across England in order to bring English regions in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, the Labour movement should think twice before overlooking the case for an England-wide Parliament. Of course, England is a country filled with many different cultures and histories. But this is no different to the diversity we see within the other nations of the UK. From Bath to Blyth, Dover to Doncaster, London to Lancaster, we are united under the English flag and the World Cup heartaches which come with it. An English Parliament would reflect and celebrate our differences and reclaim Englishness from the far-right who seem to believe they hold a monopoly over it.
Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, restrictions have differed over the four UK nations with the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish administrations each setting their own policy. This has had the effect of crowning Boris Johnson as a de-facto English First Minister, frequently announcing policy only affecting England. It is therefore no surprise that nationalist movements in Scotland and even Wales have picked up steam as people begin to feel that their First Minister is more relevant to their lives than their Prime Minister. With an English Parliament and Executive, we can devolve England-wide policy on areas such as health and education far more smoothly than with regional assemblies. The regional approach runs the risk of merely creating a group of super-councils, whereas an English Parliament would carry the powers to live up to its name. This would ensure that the UK Houses of Parliament becomes once again a British institution rather than merely an English one as many now feel it is.
It must also be noted that regional assemblies still leave a sour taste for many. Whilst the causes behind the 2004 no-vote in the referendum on a devolved north-east England assembly are complex and perhaps not entirely linked to the matter at hand, it is clear that people do not merely want an extra layer of bureaucrats spending taxpayers’ money. Labour must present the patriotic case for federalism and constitutional reform, so that people feel closer to the decisions which affect them. In drawing up regional boundaries, controversies will inevitably arise in which areas fall into which region. With England’s borders remaining largely unchanged for centuries, an England Parliament would sidestep these problems and leave little doubt on who it covers.
In 2015, Parliament took a huge step in the wrong direction in introducing English Votes for English Laws. For the first time, Members of Parliament from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland were demoted to have less influence than their English colleagues. The arguments progressed by the Tories for this change reflect the same principles many of us hold on local people taking the decisions which affect them. However, in dividing Parliament and turning some proceedings into a de-facto English Parliament, the Tories have done yet more damage to our Union. The creation of an English Parliament would echo these principles of local representation whilst preserving our UK Parliament as equally relevant for the whole of the United Kingdom.
As we hopefully begin to say goodbye to the coronavirus crisis, Britain and England must decide where its constitutional future lies. The status quo is not an option if we are to save the United Kingdom and reclaim patriotism on the left. Regional assemblies have a strong case going for them, but let’s have a proper debate before we abandon the case for an English Parliament.
James Cleverley is a member of the Young Fabians. He tweets at @JamesCleverley1.