Mary Dejevsky: Why we need an English parliament

In England there's a resurgence of national sentiment that stems directly from envy

What Lord Falconer said, first, was that England would never be given its own parliament so long as Labour was in office, because that would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. All right, as a minister of the Crown, the good lord is entitled to make policy pledges in the name of the Government. It is how he went on that infuriated.

Insisting that there was no public appetite for a separate English parliament, he said: "...to the idea of an English parliament, we say not today, not tomorrow, not in any kind of future we can see now. Devolution strengthens the union of the UK. English votes for English issues would wreck it."

This is where I say "Steady on." Who says there is no appetite for an English parliament? I see and hear interest all around. And the more attention given to the vast cost of the architectural landmark that is the Scottish Parliament and to the eco-friendly masterpiece that is the Welsh Assembly, the more that interest seems to grow.

The truth is that no one has ever asked us what we wanted. There was John Prescott's misguided attempt to persuade voters in the North-east that they wanted a regional assembly. Quite reasonably, they responded with a mixture of apathy and opposition, seeing an extra layer of bureaucracy and additional expense. Hurray for their good sense. Had they - and the rest of us registered voters in England - been asked whether we wanted an English parliament (yes, despite the appearance of my name, I am one of you) - I would bet that the turn-out would be rather better, and that the result would be a resounding "yes". If you don't believe me, Lord Falconer, how about giving it a try?

And so to the second part of the Lord Chancellor's argument. Devolution, he said, "strengthens the union" of the United Kingdom. English votes for English issues would "wreck it". Yes, devolution has created "a clear anomaly", but it is supposed to be resolved "in a way that promotes the union". In other words, the English majority should sacrifice all thoughts of running their own affairs for the greater good of the union. In essence, this means allowing the Scots to keep their subsidies from English taxpayers, while singing "Scotland the Brave", and permitting the Welsh to carry on burning our second homes to the soulful strains of "Land of our Fathers".

That is the more polite picture of what is going on. The nastier, more personalised version would go something like this. First, the Government (which is packed with Scots) needs the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs to get its legislation passed, even though the most controversial Bills - this week's Education Bill for instance - do not affect either Scotland or Wales. Second, the Government is drumming up enthusiasm for "Britishness" not only to suppress our English desire to be "devolved" like the others, but especially to blur Gordon Brown's Scottishness in good time for the next election. By then, ministers apparently believe, there is a good chance that the whole country will happily be chanting, "We are all British now."

I wonder. The devolution of Scotland and Wales has set a process in train that will be hard to stop, simply by calling it an anomaly. It is neither democratic nor just that Scottish and Welsh MPs have a vote on legislation that will have force in England alone. It is doubly undemocratic when English MPs, left to themselves, would have voted the same legislation down. Scottish and Welsh schools are organised differently from those in England, and - it seems - less contentiously. The NHS in Scotland and Wales has experienced far less of the chopping, changing, and free-market intervention than the NHS in England. There are no top-up fees in Scottish universities, and no means-tested payments from the elderly in Scottish care homes.

Perversely, the national government is making the largest segment of the union into its experimental test-bed, while the devolved mini-nations plough their smaller, steadier furrows. How long will it be before the English start to believe - perhaps wrongly - that the only reason Scotland can afford free care for its elderly and free tuition for its students is because of the subsidies from south of the border? With the oil drying up, there is no reason for Whitehall to be scared of Scottish nationalism or Scottish threats to secede. There is every reason for the English to turn resentful.

The most commonly heard argument against England having its own parliament is that the United Kingdom, as currently constituted, is too lopsided ever to be a true federation on the US or German model. England, it is said, is too dominant in terms of population and wealth to be just another constituent part of a federation. Devolution for England would, as Lord Falconer put it, "unbalance" the relationship between the nations, and leave the federal parliament "either voting on the back of what the English parliament has already decided or hanging on to its coattails". This is why, in his view, English autonomy must give way to the interests of the union.

Another view, however, would be that devolution itself is the problem. The only way out of the current "anomalous" situation is to complete the job. The one obvious analogy is with the former Soviet Union. Here was a federation that began limited devolution to satisfy nationalist sentiment on the periphery, while refusing similar autonomy to Russia, its dominant part. We know the end of that story.

But it is not often appreciated that the Soviet Union dissolved not only because the bankrupt Communist centre could not hold, but because Russians resented the self-effacement required of the dominant nation and the resources squandered on recalcitrant republics.

In England at the moment there is a resurgence of national sentiment that stems directly from envy of the way the Scots and the Welsh now feel they can express their national identity. And there is a hesitant desire to follow suit. If you doubt this, go to the Globe theatre in London on Shakespeare's birthday, the last night of the Proms, or the return cricket series for the Ashes later this year. This wellspring of national sentiment is not yet malign, but it could become so if constantly belittled and dismissed. Lord Falconer is right that an English parliament could destroy the union. But it is an "anomalously" configured devolution that sowed the dragon's teeth.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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