An open letter to the Liberal Democrats

Gareth Young
2 June 2009

"I'll consider anything that makes the political elite accountable to citizens" wrote Gordon Brown. Stopping unnaccountable Scottish MPs from voting and speaking on English matters, and from participating in the government of England, would seem like a good start in achieving that. Like Meatloaf Gordon Brown might consider anything, but he won't do that. But what will the Liberal Democrats consider?

Dear Liberal Democrats,

Given the sudden interest in constitutional reform is there any chance of getting the ‘English Question' on the political radar? An English parliament offers the opportunity of ushering in many of the constitutional reforms that are suddenly being discussed, and probably represents the best chance of a more deliberative democracy. Until people begin to think the unthinkable and talk seriously about an English parliament - even if only to advocate asking the people how they wish to be governed instead of imposing top-down solutions - I tend to think that serious constitutional reform is off the agenda. Not because an English parliament is necessary for reform, but because opposition to an English parliament is so often predicated on a desire to prevent serious constitutional reform and a rethink of what it actually means to be a multi-national United Kingdom. Talk of an English parliament raises all the difficult questions that the political establishment wants to - and will - avoid at all cost. All the more reason to raise them then.

Political authority has been hived off to Scotland, Wales and NI which makes this current crisis of legitimacy as much of an English constitutional crisis as a British one, especially because the dreadful prospect of English self-government has prevented Labour from ever asking the dreadful English (the rump of Britian) how they would like to be governed (a mistake that Cameron appears destined and willing to repeat). However, in calling for the English - as a nation - to be consulted on how they wish to be governed the Liberal Democrats could quite legitimately tap into a popular national mood that increases the likelihood of a citizens' convention for the whole of the UK (because England cannot be considered apart as Scotland was).

Devolution to Scotland, Wales and NI redistributed power between political elites, it did not transfer sovereignty in any way from State to People. By virtue of England's size and history a constitutional debate on England is also a constitutional debate on the UK which involves the whole UK. The 85% of the population who live in England can affirm their commitment to the Union and, at the same time, initiate radical change to the centre in a manner that the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cannot (unless it is by voting for separation) due to their periphery and size relative to the whole. It is change to the Anglo-British centre that can transfer sovereignty from State to People, and not just for England but for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too. You Lib Dems have a word for this, you call it federalism, it is your policy.

The Liberal Democrats could advocate this ‘National Conversation for England' within a wider UK context on the pretext that the English deserve the same right to constitutional self-determination as the Scots (which is unequivocal) but on the understanding that the whole of Britain will be involved, as they would have to be. If it's left up to Cameron and Brown then there will be a staid British solution, which means a Westminster solution, and the opportunity for radical constitutional reform will be missed for another generation.

Your former leader, Menzies Campbell, when he appeared on Sky News, made it clear that he supported a constitutional convention that could look into the issue of Scottish MPs' voting rights, and he did so again when he wrote to declare that "England deserves no less [than Scotland]. It is time for an English constitutional convention".

The Hansard Audit of Political Engagement has found that the issue of Scottish MPs voting rights is the constitutional issue that most people are dissatisfied with (although MPs' expenses may now have overtaken that), yet it's the one issue that the Westminster Establishment shy away from, repeatedly. Let the people decide, in particular the people of England who have yet to be asked.


Gareth Young

PS. The most recent poll by Populus (Anniversary of devolution, May 2009) had support for an English parliament at 41%, with 15% opposed and 44% unsure. 52% supported banning Scottish MPs from English votes.

Will COVID break up the UK?

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