How to solve the English question?

An English parliament is a non-starter. But we could soon see "English votes on English laws".

One consequence of the debate over Scottish independence is a renewed focus on "the English question": the question of how England should be governed in a post-devolution era. English voters are increasingly resentful of a settlement that allows Scottish and Welsh MPs from the three main parties (SNP and Plaid Cymru members abstain) to vote on English-only laws (the problem that became known, after the anti-devolution Tam Dalyell, as the West Lothian question).

John Reid used to quip that the answer to the West Lothian question was to stop asking it but, largely unnoticed by the media, the government has set up a new commission to examine it. An ippr poll out today shows that 79 per cent of English voters agree that Scottish voters should be barred from voting on English laws, with an absolute majority (53 per cent) in strong agreement. When offered a range of constitutional options (the status quo, English votes on English laws, an English parliament, regional assemblies), 34 per cent support "English votes on English laws" and 20 per cent support an English parliament. In other words, a majority of voters (54 per cent) now oppose the status quo.

In a speech on Saturday, Simon Hughes made the case for an English parliament but he was slapped down the next day by Nick Clegg. With English voters accounting for 80 per cent of the UK population, few senior politicians believe they require the protection afforded by a separate assembly. Moreover, no Prime Minister would ever accept the creation of a body that, owing to the size of its electorate and its wealth, would act as a genuine rival to Westminster.

There is, however, a strong chance that this government or the next will introduce some version of "English votes on English laws", a reform that would amount to the creation of an English parliament within Westminster. Indeed, every Conservative manifesto since devolution has included a pledge to introduce this reform. Deprived of the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs, a future Labour government could struggle to pass contentious legislation, one reason why it has already denounced the West Loathian commission as "partisan tinkering with our constitutional fabric".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May's Brexit gamble

The Prime Minister is betting that the economic hit from putting border control first will be delayed and go unnoticed. 

Britain’s European referendum was about immigration. That doesn’t mean the country was divided on it. Had the question been a Yes/No proposition on whether or not immigration was a good thing, it would have between a 78 to 22 per cent rout for Brexit.  As it was, what separated those who opted for a Remain vote over those who backed a Leave one was not whether or not you thought that immigration to Britain should be lowered. Remain did, however, 88 per cent of the vote from the pro-immigration majority.

The real dividing line was between people who thought that bringing down immigration would come at a cost that they were unwilling to pay, and people who thought that it could be done without cost, or, at least, without a cost that they would have to pay. Remain voters, on the whole, accepted both that there would be an economic consequence to reducing immigration generally and they’d pay for it personally, while Leave voters tended only to accept that there was a cost to be paid for it in general.

That leaves politicians in a bind, electorally speaking. There undoubtedly is a majority to be found at the ballot box for reducing immigration and there is an immediate electoral dividend to be reaped from pursuing a Brexit deal that puts border control above everything else.

But as every poll, every election and the entire history of human behaviour shows, the difficulty is that this particular coalition is single use only. It’s very similar to the majority that David Cameron and George Osborne won to cut £12bn out of the welfare bill. People backed it at the ballot box but revolted at the prospect of cuts to tax credits, one of the few ways that the cuts could possibly be achieved. In the end, the cuts were abandoned and George Osborne’s hopes of securing the Conservative leadership were, if not permanently derailed, at least severely delayed.

The nightmare scenario for Theresa May is that the majority for border control dissolves as quickly on impact with reality as the planned cuts to tax credits did.  That’s also the dream for the Liberal Democrats and Greens, who, due to Labour’s embrace of the Conservative approach of abandoning single market membership, are well-placed to benefit if everything comes unravelled.

Who’s right? In both cases, the gamble is clear. There will be a heavy economic price to be paid through leaving the single market. The question is whether that price will come in one big shock or be paid out over a number of years. If the effect of leaving the single market is an immediate fall in people’s standard of living, job losses and negative equity, then Theresa May will find herself in jeopardy. But if the effect is longer-term, and the consequences of Britain’s single market exit are only made clear when in 2030, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to abandon promises made to pensioners at a time when the pound was worth more than the Euro, then May will be able to reap the electoral dividend of getting Britain’s borders under control.

But there’s a more pessimistic future than either of these. The worst-case scenario isn’t that we all become poorer and the freedom of future governments to do what they want is sharply reduced by its weaker financial consequences. It’s that the economic hit is immediate, noticeable, but that the blame centres not on the incumbent government, but on immigrants and minorities.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.