The English question can no longer be ignored. Photo: Getty
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William Hague's plans could be highly contentious, but it's time to address the English question

There is an increasingly compelling, precautionary case for constitutional reform, but William Hague's "hard" plans aren't positive or carefully calibrated enough.

The publication of four different proposals for English votes for English Laws (EVEL) by the Cabinet Committee chaired by William Hague will come to be seen as the moment when the English Question moved out of the shadows and into the limelight of British politics. Labour’s recent shift of tone and position on EVEL means that all of the main parties at Westminster are now, in principle, willing to debate reforms to the Commons over legislation that affects England alone.

But, as constitutional experts have long argued, answering the West Lothian question without inflaming territorial differences is a far harder enterprise than it looks – essentially because it is still very hard to disentangle UK-wide legislation and administration from that affecting England. And, while the passing of a suite of new powers to Scotland has created a much stronger political imperative to "do something" about England – especially among English MPs anxiously watching Ukip’s embrace of English nationalism – giving more domestic and tax powers to Scotland does not end its significant dependency upon Treasury funding. This funding will still be allocated according to the Barnett formula – which grants the Scottish population more funding per head than the peoples of England and Wales. Equally, the Scots will still be subject to a significant number of UK-wide taxes.

Moreover, when it comes to considering EVEL, a huge amount turns on the vital question buried beneath the Hague proposals: how will English-only legislation be defined? The vast majority of Bills that are passed in parliament have a range of direct and indirect implications for different parts of the UK, and so are unlikely to fall under the remit of an English-only procedure.

There is then a good chance that EVEL, especially in the "hard" forms that Hague sets out – which might involve restricting non-English MPs from voting on clauses of Bills, or preventing Scots from voting on the UK budget – may turn into a highly contentious sledgehammer designed to crack only the occasional nut.

Nevertheless, the Westminster orthodoxy which has long stipulated that the English question is one that should be neither posed nor answered, is no longer a safe haven for defenders of the Union. West Lothian has become a proxy for the question of English devolution, and now carries immense symbolic resonance. Left unaddressed, there is every chance that it will become a source of nationalist disaffection and grievance. And there is – as some constitutional conservatives have long argued – an increasingly compelling, precautionary case for reform.

Labour’s particular fears about the consequences of its introduction are greatly exaggerated. Were it to form, or be part of, a government made up of different parties in the next parliament, it is possible that Labour might, on some occasions, have to refine its legislative programme in the face of English opinion in the Commons. But what exactly is the democratic argument against it – or any other, UK government – having to do exactly that?

And yet, lost beneath the partisan war of words on EVEL, there is a more positive, pro-democratic and pro-Union case too which needs to be aired.

One of the fundamental constitutional challenges facing the UK arises from the asymmetric manner in which its nations are governed, and both the devolution reforms introduced by Labour in 1999, and, latterly, the fall-out from the Scottish referendum, have accentuated this lack of balance. There is a growing need for reforms to shape the way in which the UK is governed, which re-establish equilibrium – between the nations, territories and regions – and which also, crucially, express the double identity that the majority of the UK’s citizens now feel – to their own growing sense of national community, on the one hand, and to the institutions, laws and burden-sharing associated with the wider polity on the other.

Just like the Scots, and increasingly the Welsh, the English are also developing a stronger sense of collective consciousness, and are becoming drawn towards the idea of greater self-government.

This shifting mood points towards a consideration of procedural protections for English interests in parliament and greater decentralisation within England. EVEL is certainly not, on its own, going to unlock and express these energies and trends. But, in its more carefully calibrated forms, it would represent an important, symbolic change – offering the English a small, but valuable, sense of recognition within the Westminster system, and potentially ushering in a much broader process of constitutional reconfiguration across the UK.

Professor Michael Kenny is the Director of the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London, and an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary,  University of London, and an associate fellow at IPPR

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Donald Trump vs Barack Obama: How the inauguration speeches compared

We compared the two presidents on trade, foreign affairs and climate change – so you (really, really) don't have to.

After watching Donald Trump's inaugural address, what better way to get rid of the last few dregs of hope than by comparing what he said with Barack Obama's address from 2009? 

Both thanked the previous President, with Trump calling the Obamas "magnificent", and pledged to reform Washington, but the comparison ended there. 

Here is what each of them said: 

On American jobs

Obama:

The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift.  And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.  We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.  We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.  We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.  And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

Trump:

For many decades we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.

One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind.

Obama had a plan for growth. Trump just blames the rest of the world...

On global warming

Obama:

With old friends and former foes, we'll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

Trump:

On the Middle East:

Obama:

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. 

Trump:

We will re-enforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.

On “greatness”

Obama:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.

Trump:

America will start winning again, winning like never before.

 

On trade

Obama:

This is the journey we continue today.  We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth.  Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began.  Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week, or last month, or last year.  Our capacity remains undiminished.  

Trump:

We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our product, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.

Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body, and I will never ever let you down.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland