Daily Archives: 12 March 2006

That pesky F-word

Why is it that when people in UK politics refer to “federalism” in the context of Europe they mean it to imply the creation of a homogenous EU Super State, while in the context of the UK, they suggest it would lead to a break up of the Union? As it happens, I think Falconer is right that an English Parliament would break up the UK, but the f-word has little to do with it.

The problem with an English Parliament wouldn’t be that it would lead to a federal UK, but that it would lead to an extremely asymmetrical federal UK, which wouldn’t be in anyone’s interests, not least of all the English. In what way would it bring decision making closer to the people?

It is bizarre and appalling that the most fervent supporters of an English Parliament are also fervent opponents of decentralisation, and choose to dress their arguments up in flag-waving nationalist nonsense. My favourite example is the Campaign for an English Parliament’s website which has a pastiche of the WWII “what did you do in the war daddy?” cartoon, with a little girl on her father’s knee asking “Dad, what did you do to secure England’s future?“. Subtext: the Scots and Welsh are the equivalent of Nazis who want to destroy our way of lives and rape our women! Godwin’s Law in effect before the argument has even begun!

And the CEP is the “respectable” face of English Nationalism. It’s even madder and badder elsewhere.

Politicians need to tackle the English Question, and quickly. An English Parliament is the threat we may end up with if all goes wrong, not the solution. The ideal in my view would be a federal structure with a patchwork of metropolitan areas, larger counties and regions with significant powers and possibly and indirectly-elected English Council to decide on things with an English significant (flags and songs, basically). That will take a long whie to happen though, so in the meantime we need to be doing the following:

  1. Scrap the Barnet Formula and reform the funding mechanism. Most “English only” Bills do, in fact, affect Scotland and Wales because they have an impact on spending levels, however indirectly. We need a system that doesn’t lead to a vote on, say, English schools, effecting the Scottish block grant. In part, that probably means fiscal federalism for Scotland as it would require the Scottish Parliament to take responsibility for what it spends.
  2. In lieu of a written constitution, some kind of convention to govern when Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs sit out certain votes. I don’t like conventions, but they do allow for a bit of safe space for something more sustainable to emerge.
  3. Proportional representation. It doesn’t solve the English Question but it does lesson it and render it largely academic. If non-Labour parties had adequate representation in Scotland and Wales, their ability to have a decisive impact on legislation that affects England would be greatly lessoned.
  4. Radical localisation. We shouldn’t merely be concerned about Scottish politicians deciding English policy, we should be concerned about London politicians deciding Manchester policy. Every decision that gets taken out of the hands of Whitehall and Westminster is a decision that doesn’t pose a problem.

I could end by noting the irony of this debate coming up at the same time as the death of Slobodan Milosevic (former president of another lopsided federation), but that would be to trivialise it. But it is sad that so many people’s idea of the Union never amounted to much more than a sense of Greater English Nationalism. The creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly has challenged that to the point that many are now all too quick to predict the death of the Union. The Union can survive, but only if we remember that Englishness is, at its heart, pragmatic. Don’t let the jelly bellied flag flappers ruin it.