Podium: Speaking up for stubborn England

From the David Hume Lecture delivered in Edinburgh by the professor of politics at Oxford University
DEVOLUTION WILL radically alter the role of Westminster, by introducing the spirit of federalism into its deliberations. Hitherto, this spirit has been absent from Westminster, with the de minimis exception of Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1972. With this exception, there has been no element of federalism in a House of Commons in which every MP was responsible for scrutinising both the domestic and the non-domestic affairs of every part of the UK.

After devolution, by contrast, MPs will normally play no role at all at Westminster in legislating for the domestic affairs of Northern Ireland or Scotland, or in scrutinising secondary legislation for Wales. Only with respect to England will MPs continue to enjoy the power which, until now, they have enjoyed for the whole of the United Kingdom.

Thus Westminster, from being a parliament for both the domestic and non- domestic affairs of the whole of the UK, will be transformed into a parliament for England, a primary legislation parliament for Wales and a federal parliament for Northern Ireland and Scotland.

This kind of asymmetrical federalism is sometimes thought of as anomalous. It would be wrong, it is sometimes suggested, for Scottish MPs, after devolution, to be able to vote on English domestic affairs, when English MPs will no longer be able to vote on Scottish domestic affairs. This, of course, is the notorious West Lothian question.

I have to confess that I have never been able to appreciate the force of this question. For English MPs have never shown much interest in Scottish domestic affairs. Even under the pre-devolution arrangements, Scottish legislation remained largely the concern of Scottish MPs.

What the West Lothian question does do, however, is to draw attention to the fact that devolution is turning Britain from a unitary state into a quasi-federal state, with Westminster becoming the quasi-federal parliament of that quasi-federal state.

The prime reason why the new constitution is asymmetric is that the devolution legislation does not propose any alteration in the arrangements by which England is governed.

There may, at first sight, seem to be no reason why devolution to Scotland and Wales should have any consequences for England at all. Devolution, after all, involves the transfer of power only over Scottish and Welsh domestic matters, and the legislation provides that the central instruments of economic management, together with all major economic and industrial powers, remain with Westminster. Moreover, the Government will continue to be responsible for the nationwide allocation of resources on the basis of need. Devolution, then, appears restricted to those matters that primarily affect those living in Scotland and Wales and which can be administered separately.

Devolution, however, will accentuate an already existing constitutional imbalance in favour of Scotland and Wales. They already have their own secretaries of state; they are over-represented in the House of Commons; and there is a good case for arguing that Scotland, although not Wales, benefits more from public spending than those English regions whose GDP per head is lower. After devolution, Scotland and Wales will have control over local government spending on devolved services and very possibly a greater opportunity of putting their case directly to the European Union.

In his poem "The Secret People" GK Chesterton wrote: "Smile at us, pay us, pass us, but do not quite forget; for we are the people of England that have never spoken yet." England has not yet spoken because, constitutionally, England does not exist. There has been no English Parliament since 1536. There is no English Office comparable to the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland offices, the "English" ministers being so only because their non- English functions have been hived off.

England has long been the stumbling-block for supporters of devolution. For England, since the time of the Union with Scotland in 1707, has resisted integration, while remaining unsympathetic to federalism. It is the supposedly unified and homogeneous nature of England which has, in large part, been responsible for that preservation of the unitary state.

There can, indeed, be no justification for requiring England to accept devolution against her wishes just because there has been devolution to Scotland and Wales. To force devolution upon England, far from assuaging resentment against Scotland and Wales, could well intensify it.