The British constitution
Now for the English question
Scotland's place in the United Kingdom is settled. Time to deal with its much larger neighbor
THE national rejoicing did not last long. Shortly after six o'clock on the morning of September 19th, the BBC announced that Scotland had voted to stay in the United Kingdom. At seven o'clock, with unionists still hugging each other, David Cameron, the prime minister, triggered a new constitutional crisis—this time concerning England.
The country is hard done by, he argued. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have their own assemblies, which control much domestic policy. But England—with 84% of the union's population—is still run from Westminster. And, since Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales continue to send MPs to Parliament, they can sway decisions on English schools, health care and the like, without English MPs having reciprocal rights. This must change, Mr Cameron said.
It is an old anomaly. Tam Dalyell, a Scottish Labour MP, pointed it out so often in the 1970s and 1980s that it has been dubbed the West Lothian Question after his constituency. But it grows more irksome as the devolved assemblies become more powerful. They already control health and education. Scotland will get more power over taxes in 2016. And late in the Scottish campaign a panicky Mr Cameron, Ed Miliband (Labour's leader) and Nick Clegg promised yet more.
Albion's fatal flaw
Mr Cameron may be playing politics. Any limit on the power of Scottish or Welsh MPs to vote on English issues will hurt Labour. But his point stands: it is simply not fair to disadvantage English voters in this way. The system must be changed, ideally in a way that enhances democracy, buttresses the union and does not increase bureaucracy. Sadly, these aims clash.
The least cumbersome way to equalise things at Westminster would be to cut the number of MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to reflect their growing autonomy. Northern Ireland was docked in the mid-20th century, when it ran its own affairs. But it would be hard to work out a formula—should Wales have proportionately more MPs than Scotland because its assembly is weaker?—and an ugly fudge would result. Scots would still be voting on English education bills, albeit in smaller numbers. But when it came to voting on war, Scots would have less say. That seems unfair, too.
A more democratic and bolder alternative would be to set up a separate English parliament. It would handle domestic policy, leaving foreign affairs and economic co-ordination to a federal parliament. This is a logical solution: everyone, including the English, would then have an assembly. English MPs would be accountable for English policies, British MPs for British ones, and voters would know whom to blame for what.
But England's sway would make that arrangement unsustainable. The most powerful part of the federation would dominate the federal parliament. The English and British parliaments would surely end up feuding, particularly over money. In the end the English parliament would probably prevail, and the British parliament would atrophy. Mr Cameron would probably want to be first minister of England and prime minister of Britain. The political union that politicians (and this newspaper) have spent two years defending as a bastion of tolerance would be endangered. England's power could be countered with a broader redesign, including, say, an elected president or a more regionally balanced senate. But that entails even more upheaval.
The civil servants who designed Germany's federal system after the second world war came up with a solution to the dominant-country problem. To prevent the huge state of Prussia from overwhelming the system, they broke it into several new ones. This could be done in England, too. The south-west, north-east and other regions could be given powers roughly equivalent to Scotland and Wales. But the English do not think of themselves as living in regions; they identify more with cities and counties. In 2004 the residents of north-east England crushed plans for a regional assembly by four to one.
The English solution
This newspaper has long argued for constitutional reform—with an elected second chamber and a written constitution. We would also like to see more powers given to mayors. If Mr Cameron holds a convention prepared to consider these things, all well and good. But the issue now is “English votes on English laws”; and there is a practical answer within the current Westminster parliament, the “double majority”.
Under this system, proposed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a Scottish Tory, a bill that only affects England would need to be passed by a majority both of the whole House of Commons and of English MPs. That would prevent a future Labour government unfairly using Scottish votes to force laws on the English; but (unlike a separate English parliament or a system that gave English MPs full power over English laws) it would stop English Tories from creating a shadow government. At present bills often have some clauses that affect only England, or England and Wales, and some that are broader. Such laws would have to be passed in bits.
There are flaws. The double majority would slow down legislation. To pass an English education or health bill, a national Labour government that relied on Scottish votes would have to court English Liberal Democrats or Tories. Since 1919 there have been only 36 months (in 1964-66 and 1974-76) when a national government has depended on Scottish votes for its majority. Even if that is more likely in the future, due to the fracturing of party politics, the system would have the good effect of pushing any such government to advance measures with broad support. A bit of haggling is better than an unjust vote.
The main objection to the double majority is that English voters would still have less clout than their Celtic cousins. That is undeniable. Yet, as the panic about losing Scotland showed, the English are willing to give up something to save the union—and the democratic cost to mighty England in this case would be small. The double majority is a bit of a fiddle. But it is the least-bad solution to the English problem.