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The Guardian calls for a national constitutional convention

August 26, 2014

The Guardian recognises what many of us have thought for a long time in that whatever happens in Scotland there needs to be a rethink in the way England is governed. In their editorial on Thursday 21st August they call for a national constitutional convention. The comments (hundreds of them) which followed the online publication of this editorial can be found here and are worth a read.

The Guardian view on a parliament for England

Events in Scotland will force the English to rethink the way they are governed. It’s time for a national constitutional convention
Suggestions that the demand for an English parliament represent an English nationalist moment should
Suggestions that the demand for an English parliament represent an English nationalist moment should be handled with care. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

A parliament for England is not yet an idea whose time has come. But it may gradually be getting there. The BBC reported this week that a large new survey by Cardiff and Edinburgh universities shows 54% support in England for its own parliament, four times as many as those who disagreed. Ukip’s deputy leader was quick off the mark to welcome the finding yesterday, lending some support to those who argue that his party is in reality less a UK independence party than an English nationalist one. The English home rule issue is also causing stirrings in the Tory party, where the rightwinger John Redwood has recently called for an English parliament, while Boris Johnson has suggested fresh powers for English cities should have more priority than any further devolution to Scotland.

Suggestions that the demand for an English parliament is finally up and running or, even more, that such calls represent an English nationalist moment should be handled with care. There have been similar polling spikes on English self-government in the past but they have evaporated, though this one may not. And English feeling takes many different, and sometimes antagonistic, forms in the different regions and social classes of England, which have rarely come together as a political force in modern times. Moreover, it seems clear that these new developments are overwhelmingly a response to the current events in Scotland. More than anything else they seem to represent a wish not to be left out rather than anything more positively focused.

It should also be remembered that when English voters have been offered more devolution, which they often have in recent years, they have mostly rejected it. This happened in the north-east referendum in 2004, which was rejected by a four-to-one margin, and in the elected mayoral referendums of 2012, when nine out of 11 English cities turned the idea down. Attempts to whip up English resentment about Scottish and Welsh devolution, or even the West Lothian question, have not got far beyond the Tory thinktanks. Explicit English nationalism of any kind remains very much a fringe political phenomenon.

This time, though, may be different. The same survey by Cardiff and Edinburgh reveals a more resentful and perhaps more bloody minded feeling in England about Scottish nationalist demands. If Scotland votes yes next month, English opinion says Scots can sink or swim on their own; while if Scots vote no, there is little English appetite to continue the UK public spending settlement embodied in the Barnett formula. The UK political parties have promised a more magnanimous approach, whatever the outcome, but the issues will be out there and the rightwing London press may not hesitate to fan them.

One way or another, events in Scotland are forcing the government of England and Britain on to the future political agenda too. Whether the momentum is primarily generated by nationalist feelings or by constitutional rebalancing, or a combination of the two, is less important than the plain facts that things are moving and that decisions will be needed. Whatever the outcome in Scotland next month, the remaining nations therefore need to begin a focused conversation about the nature of the union and its democracy.

Yes or no on 18 September, British governance is going to change afterwards. England’s voice has to be defined within the new settlement, whether in an English parliament or in new rules on English matters at Westminster. And English devolution will have to be addressed too, whether through a devolved parliament, devolution to the regions, or to existing local authorities. A federal dimension in the Westminster parliament will also be on the agenda. A constitutional convention, similar to that which paved the way for Scottish devolution in the 1990s, seems a more promising forum than any other. But the thinking and talking all need to start now and to conclude within a finite time. If they don’t, the right answers could be left at the mercy of events.


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