The redoubtable Canon Kenyon Wright threw a tartan cat among the constitutional pigeons this week by backing calls for an English Parliament. Canon Kenyon is an Episcopalian cleric who led the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1980’s which demanded - and eventually got - “Scotland’s Claim of Right” to a degree of national sovereignty. Now he’s calling for the “sovereign right” of the English people to have a parliament of their own.
Now, to most people, this will sound eccentric to say the least. Are English people not already sovereign? Do they lack self-determination? Are they under the domination of a foreign power? Clearly not. Unless you subscribe to the conspiracy theories of Jeremy Paxman et al, who believe that there is a “Scottish Raj” in charge of England because of the presence of Scots in the UK Cabinet.
So, what on earth is the Canon talking about? Is this just a piece of nationalist mischief making? The SNP leader, Alex Salmond, is himself an advocate of an English Parliament on the grounds that English nationalism is the surest way to bring about about Scottish independence. This week Salmond called for a new “Council of the British Isles”, based on the Nordic Council, which would bring together independent states of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland and England as equal partners in a new confederation.
Now, Labour agree with Salmond that an English Parliament would hasten the break up of the UK, which is why Lord Falconer has ruled out any prospect devolution south of the border. But Canon Kenyon claims to be a unionist. He told the English Constitutional Convention in Westminster this week that an English parliament “may be the only way to save the UK”. His argument is one of simple equity. If Scotland has control of its own domestic affairs, why shouldn’t England? It is “quite irrational” he says for a government which supported Scottish devolution to deny the right to the English.
Well, irrational it may be. But there are serious problems with the idea of an English Parliament. It’s not at all clear that people in England want one for a start. They massively rejected elected English regional assemblies, which Labour saw as the best way to correct any constitutional imbalances. I suspect they would also reject the idea of federalism too - for that is what we are talking about.
If the UK constitution were to be ‘rebalanced’ so that an English Parliament took over domestic affairs, there would need to be a new federal level of government created to manage UK-wide functions like defence, foreign affairs, economic and monetary policy, constitutional relations etc.. There would probably need to be a supreme court too, and a written constitution to define the powers of the different levels of government.
. British people would have to get used to electing a wholly new tier of government - the UK government. There would be separation of powers, with - on present showings - a Labour-led Federal Government going head to head with a Conservative leadership in an English parliament. Taxation would also have to be disaggregated, so that specific revenues could be assigned to state and federal levels, with appropriate fiscal redistribution to take account of regional economic disparities. It's no easy option.
But federalism is the only coherent answer to the anomalies created by the present “asymmetrical devolution”. There is clearly a potential problem about Scottish MPs voting on English bills, like education, when English MPs have no such rights to vote on Scottish legislation. However, I’m not sure how many English voters have ever actually heard of the West Lothian Question, and I suspect very few could explain what the problem is.
This seems to me to be the key question here. Do English people care enough about Scottish devolution to go the distance? Is the governance of England so seriously distorted by the marginal influence of Scottish MPs in the Commons that we need a new American style constitution? I don’t think so - but I am open to persuasion.