A week is a long time in politics but two is simply an aeon.
The dust has now settled on the Scottish referendum and already attention has turned to a number of new discussions and arguments that have sprung up out of the debris left over by the seminal ‘No’ vote. One of the more intriguing battlegrounds to have emerged is what is now being hailed as the “English Question”: essentially, should there be an English parliament to enact laws that affect England?
As we all know, Scotland has its own parliament, Holyrood, which has powers over the environment, education, the National Health Service and – from 2016 onwards – income tax. Northern Ireland and Wales also have their own legislative houses (though they have far less power than the mighty Holyrood). England, however, by far the largest country in the UK, is the only country in the union without its own parliament. Its laws are enacted in the House of Commons, which comprises MPs from all corners of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Now, this has seldom been a problem. Since the end of the First World War, only in the short-lived parliaments of 1964-66 and February to October 1974 has the party forming the UK government relied on votes outside of England for its majority in the House of Commons. But still – 2015 might yet bring with it another of these anomalies.
If Labour, the more left-wing of the UK’s mainstream parties, wins the next election, it could very well be due to the fact that Scotland is, by and large, a Labour stronghold (the Conservatives have only one MP north of the border: poor old David Mundell). Labour is currently up in the opinion polls but not by much, meaning that Scottish Labour voters could genuinely swing the balance in favour of their party.
So, after the general election in eight months’ time, we may well be left with a curious and fairly ridiculous situation. MPs representing constituencies in Scotland might well make up the Labour majority needed in the House of Commons to enact laws affecting England. Scotland – a country, let’s remember, which only a fortnight ago almost voted to leave the UK altogether. Forty-five per cent of its citizens want nothing to do with England and yet the MPs representing these same citizens might very soon decide upon laws that only affect Scotland’s southerly neighbour.
While we don’t need an English parliament to sit alongside the House of Commons – people are already fed up with politicians in this country – we should ensure that devolution works for the English in the same way it works for the other countries in the union. The people deciding on laws that affect English citizens should be those elected by voters in England. Or have I misunderstood the meaning of democracy?
Matt Alagiah is a researcher/writer for Monocle