English votes for English laws seems at first sight a logical response to the English Question. But it is in fact incoherent. It means that whenever a government depended on Scottish MPs for its majority, as could occur if Labour were narrowly elected in 2015, there would be a UK majority – Labour – for non-devolved matters such as foreign affairs and economics, but an alternative majority for devolved matters.
But a bifurcated government is a logical absurdity. A government must be collectively responsible to parliament for all the policies that come before it, not just a selection of them.
- Prof. Vernon Bogdanor, The Guardian, 25th Sep 2014
Before I lay out my case that an devolved English Parliament, voting on specifically English laws is not a logical absurdity, I'd like to point out who Vernon Bogdanor is.
Professor Vernon Bogdanor, FBA, CBE is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Government at Oxford University. He is probably the most qualified and eminent of experts when comes to the constitution of Great Britain.
Yet I still think that bifurcated government is not only not a logical absurdity but perfectly sensible; the reason for this, is Canada and Australia.
Canada and Australia, both have second tier governments. In Canada the provinces are unicameral and in Australia they are mostly bicameral. When it comes to the powers that the provinces in Canada and the states in Australia have, these are expressly laid out in their respective constitutions. Also, when it comes to the powers that the Federal Governments have in Canada and Australia, those powers are also laid out in their respective constitutions.
On top of this, Section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 of Canada and Section 109 of the Constitution of Australia Act 1900, both contain supremacy clauses which effectively renders Federal law as the supreme law of the land, which makes logical sense.
If there were to be a specifically English parliament, then not only does is make logical sense to define at law, what powers it holds but there are also precedents in Canada and Australia that show that having a codified constitution is entirely sensible. Currently, the Constitution of Britain is not a single document but a mish-mash of all sorts of pieces of legislation and convention which goes together and was not designed. Supporters will argue that it has evolved over time and suits the needs of Britain but equally, amendments by referenda to the constitutions of Canada and Australia have meant that improvements have taken place with the consent of the people.
If as Professor Bogdanor says that "a government must be collectively responsible to parliament for all the policies that come before it, not just a selection of them" then that suggests to me that rather English members of the existing British Parliament breaking away to vote on specifically English law, then his net position is to actually agree with the creation of a separate devolved English parliament, like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland currently have.
Moreover, the English grand committee would in effect seek to legislate on matters such as health and education, which have revenue-raising implications, without having control over taxation.
A government would not agree to alter taxes for policies with which it fundamentally disagrees. So bifurcated government would become deadlocked government.
- Prof. Vernon Bogdanor, The Guardian, 25th Sep 2014
The question then, isn't one of is it possible because clearly it is but what would a devolved English Parliament look like? To that end, I think that Australia is already a perfect model which could be applied.
Currently; for the purposes of the purposes of elections to the European Parliament, there are nine so-called Regions of England. They are: South East, London, North West, East of England, West Midlands, South West, Yorkshire and the Humber, East Midlands and North East. Functionally they could operate the same way as the Senate does in Australia; with equal representation in each area.
If there were 12 members from each of the regions, like there are 12 members from each of the states in Australia, this solves the problem of the richer regions bullying the poorer ones. Even apply the name of the Legislative Council if you like. There would be 108 members of the English Legislative Council.
Even have them elected on the basis of proportional representation; the same way as the upper houses in Australia are decided.
The lower house which we will call the English the Legislative Assembly should have roughly double the number of members (so that would mean 216) and they could be elected using the instant-runoff voting system, which the Liberal Democrats called for in the United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum, 2011. The fact that that failed is a travesty of British politics.
I'd even go so far as to suggest that the devolved English parliament should not even sit in London. It used to be common practice that parliament would sit wherever the king was and the actual debating chamber need not be a particularly large affair. I think that it would be kind of neat if a new English parliament house was built at Winchester, in the same city where Henry III often held parliament. Of course building office blocks are the sort of thing that could be done anywhere; so provided a suitable architect was appointed, this need not even be an issue.
I think that far from being a logical absurdity, a bifurcated government is not only entirely practicable but has proven to be so over many many years in other countries. Do I need to point out that the longest continuously running Westminster-system parliament in the world is not in the UK but lives at Macquarie Street, Sydney? The Grand Old Lady of Westminster's children, have by operation shown to be more sensible than the old lady herself.
Professor Bogdanor who was also against Scottish independence, appears to be in favour of more powerful central government from Westminster rather than further devolved powers. Partly I think that this is because he happens to be part of the establishment. Oxford University which receives a large portion of its funding from government grants, might find itself with a different set of arrangements if there was an English parliament.
Mostly I think that this is a case of pragmatism. Both he and I are probably very aware that no government actively wants to reduce its power. It is not in any British Prime Minister's interest; not the interests of the Commons or the Lords to grant any powers to another parliament.
The Kilbrandon Commission under Harold Wilson's Labour Government in 1969 was set up to look into devolution in Wales and Scotland and there was even a white paper issued in 1974 but it wasn't until 1998 that the Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru (National Assembly for Wales) was established and a year later the Pàrlamaid na h-Alba (Scottish Parliament) followed suit.
An English Parliament would require the legal unpicking of the powers of government and possibly the transfer of many government services; with them, power. What possible incentive is there for Whitehall to make itself less powerful? Nil.
A logical absurdity? A likely posssibiliy? Not in the foreseeable future.