In the year of the Scottish Referendum, Michael Fabricant argues the need for an English Parliament – not based in Westminster – and possibly in Lichfield. Published today (9th January) in the political internet paper, the Huffington Post, Michael argues:-
I was never one of those people convinced by the arguments for an English Parliament, but the Scottish Referendum has changed my mind. There should be one, and oh, it really ought to be in Lichfield – or not, in any event, in Westminster.
The Act of Union has been amended more in the past 14 years than it has in all its 307 year history. Devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has changed decision making across the Union without regard for the sleeping giant of the United Kingdom – England. Back in August last year, I advocated in an article in the Daily Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/10259909/Englands-grievances-would-be-addressed-by-a-new-Act-of-Union.html#disqus_thread) that the time has come for a New Act of Union, giving not only parity to nations of the UK, but stopping the drip-drip-drip effect of devolution that is not only debilitating to our constitution, but a hindrance to progress in policy. Over recent years it has become apparent that policy delivery in some areas has fallen behind because of continuing obsession by the political class over the constitution.
One of the strengths of the United Kingdom is the social and cultural union that exists without the need for politics to bind it together. But this has lead to the fiscal politics of the Barnett Formula; an outmoded calculation of subsidies between the nations. It is only a rare grumble from some in England that fiscal transfers take place in the UK from the wealthier parts to the poorer giving extra benefits to Scotland through the increasingly antiquated formula.
In recent weeks, the Government has taken forward most of the considerations of the Silk Commission in Wales, giving England’s most porous economic border beneficial taxation powers that don’t exist in England. Northern Ireland already has more competitive corporation tax and air passenger duty than anywhere in England.
In less than 300 days’ time, 300 years political union could be ended. I sincerely hope that it isn’t, and that we have the common sense to evolve as a United Kingdom.
So why the need for an English Parliament?
Firstly, many of the Departments of State in Whitehall are no longer British institutions. They’re English only. The Departments for Education, for Health, for Communities and Local Government, much of Environment, and even Business and Industry all make decisions just for England, with our Celtic cousins holding the levers of power themselves. Their own Ministers and Government departments implement their own policies in those departmental areas. So I believe that Whitehall Departments should be renamed as English Departments and held accountable to an English Parliament, creating policy unashamedly for the English and their needs.
Secondly, if the Mackay Commission’s recommendations on the West Lothian Question were taken forward and we do end up with English votes for English MPs, this will solve only part of the question. It is still difficult to envisage how it would improve policy making on English only issues. Why can Wales and Scotland have the ability to vary income tax, whilst still receiving block grants from England?
But there is something else important about this proposal. The English Parliament should be in Lichfield for a reason.
Lichfield is at the very centre of England and, more importantly, is outside of London and London-centric-thinking. One of the weaknesses of the United Kingdom is that it is a highly centralised country. London is a truly global city; moving English-only decision making away from London would remove very little from that city, but it would open up, with fresh eyes, the way the nation looks at itself. The BBC has done just that with its creation of Media City in Salford, and increasingly businesses are looking at cities like Birmingham and Manchester to relocate. So why not English politics too?
The United Kingdom would become quasi-federal as a result, but would be fairer, stronger, and more enduring.
Decisions that need to be made together like our national finances, our transport programme, our welfare provisions, our diplomatic activities, and our national defence can still all be undertaken as at present by the Parliament in Westminster. But there is clearly a need for the English voice to be heard on other affairs of State. The Scottish referendum will increase the feeling of English nationalism and rather than ignore it and allow animosity to develop, let’s look towards the practical.
I don’t doubt that there is not the same strength of feeling towards devolution in England as there is in Wales and Scotland, however the very fact that the Celtic nations have taken the route of devolution, and that it has advanced as far as it has, inevitably drives England in the same direction. That is not something to be feared – it is to be built on.
To quote one of our Greatest Britons on England, "There is a forgotten, nay almost forbidden word, which means more to me than any other. That word is England".
In the context of devolution, Winston Churchill probably got it right.
The earlier article published in the Daily Telegraph, to which this one relates published on August 22nd 2013, can be found here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/10259909/Englands-grievances-would-be-addressed-by-a-new-Act-of-Union.html#disqus_thread and is reproduced below.
The spires of Lichfield Cathedral, in my Staffordshire constituency, look out across the very middle of middle England – both demographically and geographically. In recent years, as our Union has continued to evolve, this part of the UK has remained mainly silent. So as its MP, I want to press the case – whatever the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum – for a new Act of Union that addresses the interests of all the nations within it.
As a piece of legislation, the Act of Union – or, to be more precise, the Union with Scotland Act of 1706 and the Union with England Act of 1707 – is among the most successful of all time. A fusion of separate countries has become one of the world’s most important and enduring single markets: a beacon of free trade, democracy and entrepreneurial endeavour.
What is remarkable about the Act – passed 69 years before the creation of the United States, and 82 before the storming of the Bastille – is how much of it is still relevant. Of the 25 articles, 15 are about taxes and trade – and today it is almost inconceivable to imagine there not being a currency union in the UK, or barriers being placed on goods travelling within it.
But a country must be united by more than just economic purpose. It needs political purpose, too. And in recent years, devolution has altered our Union for good. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already diverged over the delivery of public services; with the Silk Commission in Wales, and the clamour for “devo-max” if the Scots stay in the Union, taxation and fiscal affairs could follow suit.
Hence the need for a new Act of Union – to replace a clumsy, often incomprehensible system of differing powers with one that offers the same rights to all. This Act would strengthen our single market and currency union, enshrine the fairness of wealth distribution from richer areas to poorer, and reinforce the social and cultural ties that go beyond politics.
It would also address the grievances of the largest part of the Union: England. My constituents see their health and education services voted on by MPs who, because of devolution, are completely unaffected by that legislation. While there isn’t an appetite for yet another tier of government in the form of a separate parliament, there is a demand for only English MPs to be able to vote on English laws.
The nature of the changing Union has seen power edging away to the nations. Next year’s referendum in Scotland might go even further. Now is the time to fix the parameters so everybody feels their voice is counted equally, and decisions are made by people they elect – whether in a devolved institution or not.
It is not just Britain that is changing – the world is, too. When Scotland first formed a union with England, nobody imagined we would now be in a similar customs union with France and Germany. As our relationship with a European Union of 40 years’ standing begins to change, we must first secure the older and stronger union: the United Kingdom.
A new Act of Union would be about more than just legislation. It would be the chance for a full and frank re-evaluation of the bonds between us. And we should have the vision to recognise that without it, the remorseless push for the break-up of the UK will continue – whatever the outcome of next year’s referendum. Alex Salmond shouldn’t be able to decide the future of our Union in 2014. We all should.