openDemocracyUK

The Coalition Government Ducks the English Question

Gareth Young
7 June 2010

England may have voted Conservative at the general election but it won't be Conservative policy on the West Lothian Question that England gets. The Conservatives won a majority of seats in both England and England & Wales, yet their promise to the voters of England and Wales that 'a Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries' has been reneged upon in favour of a 'commission to consider the West Lothian question'. 

The Conservatives have been considering the West Lothian Question for the past twelve years. Ken Clarke's Democracy Task Force had considered it in depth and at length. However, in last week's written ministerial statement on the Machinery of Government, we discovered that responsibility for considering the West Lothian Question would not lie with Ken Clarke's Ministry of Justice. Instead it is Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who has been handed 'special responsibility' for 'considering the West Lothian Question'.

The letter that I recently received from Nick Clegg's office tends to suggest that Clegg favours mitigating the West Lothian Question rather than answering it.

We recognise that devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland poses difficult questions for the governance of England within the Union. I think it’s important to be honest about the fact that it is difficult to find an immediate solution. The idea of ‘English votes for English laws’ is extremely complicated to implement – particularly because many laws actually extend to England only in some parts, while covering other parts of the UK in other areas. Given the fact that changes in spending on English services which would be devolved in the rest of the UK directly affect the devolved administration’s budgets, it is also often the case that ‘English’ legislation actually will affect devolved issues outside of England. We believe that we can only really deal with this question by looking at it as part of the wider political system. We need to do more, first of all, to give more power to people locally in England – so that they, too, have more control over their own affairs rather than being micromanaged from Whitehall. We want to give local communities real power over their health services and policing, through fairly elected local health boards and police authorities – as well as freeing the hands of local councils, removing power from Westminster and Whitehall. Ultimately, we want to move towards a federal United Kingdom – devolving power within England further and thus resolving this question.

The voters of England will not get what the Conservatives promised them. And to make matters worse we will not get what the Liberal Democrats promised us (the Liberal Democrat manifesto promised to "address the status of England within a federal Britain" through a "constitutional convention"). Oh no. The status of England will not be recognised by English Votes on English Laws or addressed through a constitutional convention, instead England faces more piecemeal constitutional reform that ducks the English Question altogether, denied any recognition of nationhood by a manifesto for government that nobody voted for.

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