Those of us supporting devolution for England are constantly asked where, if England got a parliament, would it be located. I think this is a good question even it is meant as a provocation. We need to modernize our democracy and not just settle for the past. A radical rethink which is long overdue and as well as making sure we get our own parliament, we also want to make sure it does get lost or mangled inside the machinery of the UK Parliament, or become an appendage to it.
Indeed, the location of its parliament goes to the very heart of what devolution for England will actually be. England isn’t Scotland, it isn’t Wales. For centuries Scotland and Wales had been denied any form of self-government, so going for the location of their parliament/assembly in their capital cities was part of their re-assertion of restored national-identity. It seemed perfectly sound to them at the time. Maybe both of them should have given it more thought. There were, and maybe there still are, some pretty bitter grumblings both in Glasgow and in North Wales at the way Edinburgh and Cardiff took it all and shared out nothing.
When it is England’s turn new questions will have to be posed and debated no matter how much they disturb set ways of thinking, to confront very different realities. One is the fact that the Union government is located in London. If the English Parliament is located there too, the governance and control over England that London already exercises, and profits from immensely, will be increased. Or it could reduce the English parliament to no more than an extension of the Union Parliament, a gesture on the part of the Union power elite that it nonetheless keeps tight control over. In such a circumstance the distinct identity and the specific interests of the English people, which their parliament should represent, could continue to be disadvantageously confused with the British state.
Instead, England should have its own parliament outside of London. Our system of government is one of excessively London-based centralised power. There isn’t just a disproportionate concentration of political power in London and the South East but also, going with it, an immense concentration of wealth, economic and financial power, cultural activity and employment opportunities. An English Parliament with the same powers for England as the Scottish Parliament has for Scotland that is well away from London could bring about the greatest geographical transfer of power, employment and cultural activity in England’s history. In fact for these very reasons perhaps we have to give serious thought as to whether its powers should be just in one place, let alone well outside of London?
However, first we must give consideration to that crucial phrase: ‘with the same powers for England as the Scottish Parliament has for Scotland’. In 1998 devolution was given to Scotland and Wales as distinct nations. The essence of the 1998 legislation was the provision, in varying degrees, of self-rule to two peoples of this island on the basis of their distinct national identity. The Welsh Act states it thus: ‘The Welsh Assembly will be the focus for all the concerns for the Welsh nation’. The Scottish Act talks of Scotland, the Scottish people and the Scottish nation in line after line. The 1707 Act of Union had terminated both England and Scotland politically and constitutionally as distinct and separate states and substituted the idea of a British nation. Wales had been absorbed into the English Crown long before then. The 1998 legislation re-established Scotland and Wales politically and constitutionally as distinct nations within the Union. An English Parliament will do the same for England.
There were two things that 1998 legislation did not do. It gave no devolution to England, of course, and it gave far fewer powers to the Welsh Assembly than to the Scottish Parliament. The drive for devolution was from the Scottish MPs who dominated the 1997 Labour government. They looked after their own country’s interests first and foremost as they had declared they would do in the1989 Scottish Claim of Right, signed by 132 Scottish MPs/MEPs and others, Gordon Brown among them, pledging that in ‘everything they said and did they would make the interests of the Scottish people paramount’.
However, a fundamental democratic principle of a Union of three nations is that each of the three should stand in the same relationship to the Union and to each other. Scotland has genuine and effective home rule in the most important areas of internal government: education, health, local government, agriculture, fishing, culture, media, forestry, sport, independent of Westminster. Which Wales hasn’t got to the degree Scotland has; and England has none at all.
So what are we talking about is an English Parliament which by its existence is the declaration that the people of England are politically and constitutionally a distinct nation within the Union and which, like in Scotland, in internal matters would exercise self-rule. We’re not talking about the Whitehall-controlled regional assemblies such as were on offer to England’s North East in 2004 and decisively rejected by 78% to 22%. We are talking about a real deal, precisely what Scotland has.
So where should England’s Parliament be located?
The presumption till recently has always been London. That’s the reflex response, the default position. But in the context of today is it the right one? How does it stand up against what is the one consideration, the only one, that should be borne in mind, namely what is best for the English people as a whole? What best serves the welfare of the people of England of today? The patriotic English man and woman can be expected to want the best for England as a nation. There is no binding necessity simply to go along with tradition and past usage. The ‘first-past-the-post’ election system for example has been in place for a very long time, yet it is now to be subjected to a referendum. The House of Lords, as ancient as the Commons, is in the process of change. London as the location for the English Parliament can rightly be subjected to critical and objective scrutiny.
London already has so much. It is the location of the Union Parliament, and the Union is hardly likely to break up. The Scots and the Welsh will never want it because a break-up is not in their economic and fiscal interests. And if they don't want it, it will not happen. A Union most likely in the form of a federation is what will happen. So London will continue to be the UK capital with all the immense kudos and advantages that that brings to it and to its inhabitants.
It helps to compare what London has with the rest of England. It has the Union Parliament, it has the Monarchy, the City, the Law Courts, Wembley, Twickenham, Lords, the Oval. It will soon have the most up-to-date, the best and the most expansive Olympic facilities going. The new London velodrome will replace the Manchester velodrome as the HQ of cycling. The new London swimming centre will likewise be the swimming HQ. The City is a world’s financial centre. London is the theatre, dance, music, art, advertising and media centre of the UK. It is a world cultural centre, equal to any other. London sucks in talent and skills from the rest of England with the irresistible force of a black hole. But to be English is not just to be London. It is true English patriotism to want to share England’s political, economic, employment and cultural wealth as evenly throughout the country as is both possible and sensible and to strive to make the sharing a reality.
One autumn evening about two years ago we walked along the south bank of the Thames from Vauxhall Bridge to City Hall. Both sides of the river swanked with the aroma and the glitter and the aura of wealth and power. Tate Britain, Lambeth Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge, the great rolling heaving sweep of the Thames, the renovate South Bank wharfs with their opulent shops and restaurants, Tower Bridge, the Law Courts on the Embankment, Somerset House so lavishly renovated; and behind all of that Belgravia, the Royal Parks, Mayfair, Covent Garden and the City and I have not started to talk about Kensington and Chelsea. Nowhere in England is there such a concentration of wealth, with its City tentacles reaching even today to the ends of the earth.
Power is the honeypot. In England the UK Parliament in London has complete power. All other power, as exercised by local authorities, is at the disposal and under the command of Westminster. It is the possession of political power that gives London this pre-eminence, this immense concentration of wealth and culture. First the monarchy, then parliament. Power is where the money travels to, and that engine of money-making, the City, sits tight next to the seat of government. The Law Courts are there, theatre is there, the film world and the music world are there, fashion is there, and the media – BBC, ITV and Sky - are there; and all this irresistibly draws in talent from all over England.
There is something inherently and deeply wrong if in any community one section of it predominates inordinately in wealth, employment and creativity, not by reason of innate ability but by reason of the location of power. This imbalance is as unfair to England as The West Lothian Question and other outcomes of the 1998 devolution legislation are. There are 47000 people in England with an average pre-tax income of £780,000; there is another 420,000 people who have pre-tax incomes of £100,000 to £350,000; and nearly all of them live in and around London. Simons Jenkins (Guardian 22/10/10) provides a further example: the London art institutions and museums such as the BM, the Tate, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the National Gallery etc will take a 15% cut in government funding over 5 years while the rest of the country will be hit with a 29% cut. ‘The London Tate is free, the St Ives Tate has to charge £5.75 entry….Cameron may win plaudits for his generosity to London’s gilded elite but he is penalising the provinces three times over by cutting direct grants, by cutting grants to councils and by banning councils from levying extra taxes to compensate. This is triple centralism and most unfair.’
The spoils of three hundred years of Empire, of world-wide exploration and acquisition, are on show in London because it has been the capital of that Empire: in the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the great art galleries, the Victoria and Albert and any amount of smaller yet very significant other venues. What is on show is mind-boggling. And it isn’t just a matter of what is on display or in their capacious vaults; there are also the exhibitions of collections from abroad, which never fail to dazzle the eyes and stun the mind. The Science Museum now has a magnificent new Darwin Centre and the Natural History Museum displays arrays of objects almost beyond counting and now offers a new Earth Hall of fascinating interest. The school children and students of London have on their doorstep an educational treasure trove of incalculable abundance and efficacy, such as exists nowhere else in England; and easily accessible to London’s children, students and adults. On October 29th the last day of half term, the queue of youngsters going into the NHM took an hour and a half, but what an Aladdin’s Cave!. There is nothing like it elsewhere. The Royal Parks are launching public drinking fountains all paid for by Tiffany the jewelers planned to be as beautiful as pieces of sculpture: in St James’s, Regents’s Park, Hyde, Green, Kensington Gardens, Greenwich and Richmond. Not in Ancoats in Manchester or Smethwick in B’ham or St Pauls’s in Bristol or Fazakerley in L’Pool or Paradise in Newcastle.
I am not suggesting that what London has should be dispersed to museums from Berwick to Penzance, from Carlisle to Dover –though that might not be a bad idea for the vast amounts kept unseen and unvisited in the vaults and storerooms of London’s museums and galleries. I am just pointing out the obvious, that the location of power brings with it immense cultural and educational advantages. We should not create upheaval by the forced distribution of what is already in place; but we can consider not making it worse by locating the new English Parliament well outside of London, able by its power and importance to attract new cultural developments and new acquisitions and discoveries. It is difficult to see how the patriotic person wanting the best for England can find cause to disagree.
So I ask you to envisage another reality for England. Envisage some of that heaving swelling cauldron of advantages and opportunities shared with other parts of England. An English Parliament well away from London with the same powers for England as the Scottish Parliament has for Scotland could bring about a new flouring of the employment that both follows power and promotes it: media, accommodation, advertising, printing, design, fashion, publishing, civil servants, think-tanks, even international delegations. Artistic endeavour and output will gather there too, theatre and music, dance and opera, not as outposts of London institutions but in their own right. If an English Parliament has all its functions in one place, its location will be a centre and a magnet for employment (which matters most), media and culture.
The time has come to imagine England as a new reality, not as an appendage to London. England is a nation, from the Scilly Isles to Berwick, from Dover to Carlisle, from the Wash to the Wirral. England is a commonwealth within which London is a part, a mighty part indeed, but still no more than a part.
There is something else to consider about London. It is the site of the UK Parliament. Westminster is Unionist through and through. After 300 years of being the Union government and, till 1947 and the independence of India, the government of the Empire, is it fit for to be the capital of England again? Till 1707 the parliament located in London was England’s. Its concern was England. Since then its concern has been the Union and the Empire. British MPs remain concerned first and foremost with the Union, and not first and foremost England. They differ sharply in this from the MPs of Scotland. Consider, to take just one example, the plight of English refinery workers at Lindsey in Killingholme in Lincolnshire in 2009. The Union Parliament did nothing when the jobs were given to Italian workers. Yet in a similar situation in Scotland a 40 day period would apply, in which time local workers have first right to apply for jobs. Scotland has its political champion in the shape of its own parliament. England has no voice of its own.
Environment matters. An English Parliament located within that Unionist culture will struggle to be independent-minded in respect of English matters. Its whole surrounding environment will be hostile to what it will be set up to do. If civil service resources are shared the two will be indistinguishable. To be itself, an English Parliament will need its own space, its own separate physical existence.
Will the transfer and distribution of employment and power just to one location in England be enough? Or is there something better, something more imaginative, something that is even more democratic that can be done? Can power be so distributed that its exercise binds all of England more closely, unites the English people more intimately, without the outcomes being cumbersome and inefficient? Can the powers and functions of an English Parliament be distributed round England so that more places and more people might benefit? I am not suggesting we copy the EU Parliament, which packs up every six months to flit between Brussels and Strasbourg, generating a huge additional expense that has no democratic value and is done only to please the French. Is there any other model?
Whatever is done must genuinely extend democracy, involve more people and more places in the government of England. Secondly, whatever is set up must not mean just more of the same kind of government we have already. We must not follow the Scottish and Welsh model where the parliamentary payroll was added to by 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament and 60 Members of the Welsh Assembly, all of them with their salaries, expenses and paid assistants and a deluge of more civil servants; yet without at first any reduction in the number of Scottish and Welsh MPs in Westminster. The members of the Scottish Parliament took over the great majority of the responsibilities of Scottish Westminster MPs, yet the salaries of the latter were retained in full. The situation of course was that the bloc of Scottish MPs in Westminster would never have let devolution for Scotland go through if it has meant taking a penny from their salaries. The cost of government must not be set by the pockets of the people who govern us. The public which foots the bill will not put up with it.
Now, with that in mind, we might ask what is available to us through modern technology. Which brings us to the consideration of the constituent parts of an English Parliament. They will be the legislature, an Executive and, I hope, a second or revising chamber. The Scottish Parliament does not have one, nor does the Welsh Assembly. But a second chamber is democratic: a revising chamber, able to question and put forward amendments, able even to defy the legislature of party representatives and the Executive, is a democratic necessity and part of the English tradition of government.
Is it possible that such an English Parliament can be spread across England, with more locations than one enjoying the immense transfer of power, employment and cultural activity that will ensue? For example –and this is by way of example only- in Manchester, Newcastle and Bristol? Each 200 miles from each other. The legislature (the Commons) in one, the second chamber (the Lords) in another, the Executive in the third with each constituent part permanently in one place, communicating with the other two by means of modern technology?
What I am proposing is a very different sort of English Parliament than what is traditionally conjured up by the idea; one that by both its location and its organisation will be a commonwealth and a sharing. It will achieve more involvement of people and places. It will help unite and integrate the English nation with each and every political persuasion, ethnicity, religion and culture. It will be a dynamic challenge between places, a catalyst for change and experiment. It can happen. It will be vigorously resisted. But it can happen.
A longer version of this essay was originally published on 'England's Left Forward'
Get our weekly email