Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 114-119)


19 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q114 Chairman: Lord Tyler, Mr Clarke, Professor Bogdanor, my apologies for the delay. We are never entirely sure when these things happen, but I do not think we are going to be interrupted again. Let us start off by asking you, in a couple of sentences, how you would define the English Question. Let us start with Professor Bogdanor.

Professor Bogdanor: I believe there are two questions. The first is the constitutional question of the imbalance that is resulting from devolution. Secondly, there is a political question, which is the more important question, in my view a sense perhaps of alienation on the part of many people in England who feel that government does not take as much notice of them as perhaps it does of the Scots and the Welsh.

  Q115  Chairman: Do others agree that that is the nature of the question, the balance of the issues?

  Lord Tyler: I would just add that there is within the English Question a number of English questions; there is even the Cornish question—that feeling of alienation is stronger the further you go away from London—and while it would appear that a solution has been arrived at for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, I think there are many other parts of what is traditionally referred to as England where that is identified as well.

  Mr Clarke: I think there is an English Question, as defined by Professor Bogdanor, and it is not just confined to the problems that have arisen from devolution. In answer to the question of devolution, I think there are doubts about legitimacy when legislation is passed by the votes of people whose constituents are not affected by it in their nation where there is now devolved power, and I think it is giving rise to a certain amount of English irritation which could sometimes get rather stronger. I do not share that; I think it is rather irritating. I personally find English anti-Scottish feeling or Scottish anti-English feeling childlike but perfectly all right as long as it is confined to the football stadium or the rugby match or something of that kind. Although it is not widespread, I actually think over the last 10 years there has been a distinct growth in the number of people who are irritated by the relationship between Scotland and England and I would like to nip that in the bud by some sensible constitutional minor change, in my opinion, to finish the business of devolution.

  Q116  Alun Michael: In The Observer on 4 November Professor Bogdanor said, " ... 528 of the 645 MPs in the Commons represent English constituencies. On any issue that unites them, English votes will predominate. The English have no need to beat the drum or blow the bugle. If they do, they will strain the devolution settlement, which rests fundamentally, as the Union has always done, on a sense of restraint by the dominant nation in the UK." Could I first ask Professor Bogdanor, following those comments, do you think that the English Question is still a legitimate one, and what are the potential risks in attempting to address what you defined in your introduction of the English Question?

  Professor Bogdanor: The constitutional aspect of the English Question cannot be resolved unless and until England or regions of England want legislative devolution, and that is obviously a long way away. There is certainly no sign of that at the moment. But I believe that the political aspects of the English Question can and should be answered—the sense of alienation felt by many people in England that the Government does not take enough notice of them. I would, however like to repeat what I said, in the "Observer", and which you kindly quoted, that England is the dominant nation in the United Kingdom and the price that has to be paid for keeping the Union, which I think is very important for all of us, is English self-restraint; that itself is nothing new; it has probably always been there since the Union with Scotland in 1707, because England has always been the dominant nation and the Union has only been threatened when England is seen to take advantage of that. For example, in the poll tax legislation of the late 1980s it seemed that Scottish opinion on the whole was thoroughly against it, but the English perhaps did not take sufficient notice of that. I think it has always been the case that English self-restraint is the key to maintaining the United Kingdom.

  Q117  Chairman: Lord Tyler, Mr Clarke?

  Mr Clarke: Firstly, just to correct a factual error, it was not the English inflicting the Poll Tax on Scotland. Let me make it clear, the Poll Tax was an unmitigated disaster from the moment it was first mooted to the moment it eventually collapsed—I am in no doubt about that—but actually it was just a political misjudgment. It was our Scottish colleagues who wanted to rush the Poll Tax into Scotland because they were terrified of the consequences of a forthcoming rating revaluation which they would have to see through if they did not have this marvellous new tax. The idea the English used it as an experiment was a very skilful argument later used by Scottish Labour and Scottish Nationalists to beat us over the head for putting in the ridiculous tax in the first place. So I do not think the English have ever consciously experimented on Scotland. I do not agree with Vernon, with respect. I think there is a parliamentary problem which needs to be parliamentarily addressed before what becomes a niggle gets worse, and I think devolution has changed things. These historical analogies about Northern Ireland always having to put up with legislation that Northern Irish MPs did not always want, and so on—nobody can usually force things on them—has all changed. We have had, in my opinion, with hindsight, quite correctly and quite successfully, change so that the key matters are now devolved to Scottish decision in a Scottish Parliament and probably will be in Wales. That is the way we are going as well. The same thing applies there. It does now give rise to parliamentary problems. Everybody in this Committee is as familiar as I am with foundation hospitals. It is not such a great problem. I voted with the Government on foundation hospitals. It was Liberals and a Labour revolt that meant that there was not an English majority on it. The key one was student fees, which Vernon's argument says the English should tolerate. The fact was the majority of English MPs voted against English students paying tuition fees. Scottish MPs provided the majority which brought the fees in. In Scotland, those Scottish MPs had no vote; it was the votes of Scotsmen and women in the Scottish Parliament that decided that Scottish students should not pay university fees. The English have kind of put up with that, but when you explain it to an Englishman or when you meet an Englishman who knows that history, it causes considerable annoyance, not least to students alongside each other in the same university, one paying fees because he is English, the other not paying fees because he is Scottish. That should be a warning. That is the West Lothian question in its starkest form. If you had a Parliament where this was unusual again, it was all to do with party developments and things. If you had a Parliament where that started happening over and over again, I think you would be damaging the union and you would be taking a risk. To rely on English tolerance would not be good enough. I think some politicians would exploit it: a sense of mounting English anger that things were being done when the English MPs would not have voted for it or were in the majority against it and all those MP's who have got devolved government in their own territories were being wielded to produce a majority.

  Lord Tyler: I do not think the restraint has been one way. I think it has been a two-way process. Basically, I agree with Professor Bogdanor's analysis here, but I think if you look at it over a longer period, Scots and Welsh have had to be restrained in the way in which they have had to put up with the way in which England has tended to dominate so much political discussion, and I think the new anomaly since devolution is simply an attempt to address previous equally dramatic anomalies in the past.

  Q118  Alun Michael: Perhaps as a Welshman I ought to welcome the idea of anybody describing Scots and Welsh as restrained.

  Mr Clarke: Can I just come back on board? Devolution, it seems to me, was the end result of mounting Scottish and Welsh resentment against governments, probably particularly the Thatcher Government, which they did not like anyway, but a government to which a majority of their MPs were in opposition and which was increasingly imposing on Scotland things they disliked. This eventually led to an irresistible demand for devolved government in lots of key domestic policy areas. Because the English are 85% of the population of the United Kingdom, it may take them very much longer to start getting into the kind of mood that will make it wise to move to devolution in England, but what is the point of going down that road?

  Q119  Alun Michael: Could I ask one other question. We are parliamentarians and, therefore, the interest in parliamentary process and legislation is obviously very much of interest to us, but for many people there is devolution in England in the sense of the Government of London, so should not the English Question be the England outside London question?

  Lord Tyler: I certainly agree with that. I think there is continuing resentment in areas furthest away from London within England where it is thought everybody else now seems to have a measure of devolution; even if it is not legislative devolution, administrative devolution. For example, in relation to the two big issues that we are told the public are concerned with—the Health Service and crime—in both cases the only accountability would seem to be through a secretary of state in London. I used to be a member of a police authority as a local authority member. Today members of police authorities are all appointed by the Home Secretary. Similarly, if you have a complaint about the Health Service in your region of England, you have to go to the Secretary of State, effectively, to get somebody who can take a major decision. So I think there is a resentment outwith London that London-based London thinking, the bubble around Westminster, seems to be where all the major decisions are taken where only accountability can lie, particularly in relation to these two key public services. I think that is a very general issue, and there I do agree with Kenneth Clarke. I think there is resentment that perhaps Scottish and Welsh citizens have greater accessibility to people who take decisions.

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