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23 January 2012

How to solve the English question?

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

By George Eaton

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”.

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