May we have an early debate on who speaks for England and who should make decisions for England in an increasingly devolved United Kingdom?
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concern. We announced on Tuesday the establishment of the West Lothian commission, which will look at a range of options. For example, with issues that affect only England and Wales, one option would be that only English and Welsh MPs voted on such matters. In my view, that would be an appropriate rebalancing of the constitution to take account of the fact that in Scotland they have their own Parliament in which issues are resolved on which English MPs cannot vote. It seems somewhat perverse that Scottish MPs can vote on those very same issues when they apply only to England.
Do you see what George Young has done there? John Redwood has asked him a specific question, but instead of providing a straight Yes or No answer he obfuscates, avoids the question and moves on.
The West Lothian Commission is not about answering the question of who speaks for England. The West Lothian Commission is a collection of technocrats tasked with investigating changes to Parliamentary procedure in regard to MPs’ voting privileges. It is not within its remit to recommend a Secretary of State for England, an English parliament elected on a mandate from the people of England, an English government, a First Minister for England or anything or anyone who might conceivably be understood to speak for England. It is not about finding a voice for England (though it would at least be a form of recognition of England).
The previous Government seemed to be of the belief that the UK Government spoke for England. George Howarth, a Government minister back in 1998 stated that “The Government as a whole speak for England”.
That statement was met with an incredulous one word reply from Eric Forth: “Really?”. Not an unreasonable response given that the Government of the time was top heavy with Scottish MPs.
Clearly the Government as a whole does not speak for England, and nor can it speak for England, but it is interesting to note that The Memorandum of Understanding does categorically state that individual UK Ministers do represent the interests of England:
This Memorandum sets out the understanding of, on the one hand, the United Kingdom Government, and on the other, the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers, and the Northern Ireland Executive Committee (“the devolved administrations”) of the principles that will underlie relations between them. The UK Government represents the UK interest in matters which are not devolved in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Policy responsibility for these non-devolved areas is within the exclusive responsibility of the relevant UK Ministers and Departments. It is recognised by these Ministers and Departments that, within the UK Government, the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for ensuring that the interests of those parts of the UK in non-devolved matters are properly represented and considered. Other UK Ministers and their departments represent the interests of England in all matters.
In other words, in the absence of devolution to England, and in the absence of a Secretary of State for England, it is up to individual Government ministers and their departments to ‘speak for England’. In reality some of them can’t even bring themselves to say the word England, let alone speak for it; and none of them even know what the interests of England are because the Government as a whole dare not ask us.
Redwood’s question to Young follows from his blog article on Scottish and English Nationalism in which he says that David Cameron ‘can take comfort from the fact that he can deny the English a vote on the Scottish question’. In my opinion the English should have no say at all in the Scottish question because that it is a matter for the Scottish people. However, if the Scottish people choose Independence or Devolution-Max, David Cameron will find himself unable to ‘deny the English’ any longer.
Redwood goes on to speculate upon what it is that English nationalists want:
The dream ticket for a modern English nationalist is a decision by Scotland to leave the UK, followed by the ending of membership of the EU because the member, the UK, no longer exists.
That may be true of English nationalists within the Conservative Party, but they are not what I would call modern English nationalists. I am an English nationalist because I believe that the nation (in this case the people of England) is entitled to its own state, and is entitled – is sovereign – to determine the basis of its government. Implicit in this is the understanding that ultimately it is the nation – the people – that are sovereign, not the state. And whilst I may find Scottish independence and an exit from the EU a democratic improvement on where we are now, that scenario is by no means a dream ticket. Do we want an English parliament on the basis that the other nations of the UK have all buggered off leaving the British parliament as an English parliament, full of the same cretins who previously took comfort in denying the English, but who now call themselves English? No, I want an English parliament to come about as a result of a popular vote in England, an affirmation of nationhood, democracy and popular sovereignty.
My dream ticket is for the people of England to demand their say and for the Government to listen to them. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request. If that ever happens then I will feel that I have won, even if the people don’t vote for an English parliament of some sort. If the British State were to submit itself to the judgement of the people of England we will have entered a new era, a post imperial era in which all the people of Britain, not just the Scots, are entitled, but not obliged, to be independent or in a Union of their choosing.
Who speaks for England? The people of England speak for England, but we have not spoken, yet.