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English Patience

Betsan Powys | 23:59 UK time, Monday, 2 June 2008

"The English Question, that slumbering giant in British politics, is beginning to stir."

That question, being raised now by the former Labour minister Frank Field, is all about the effects of what some see as the lopsided nature of devolution in Britain. Lots of it in the Celtic fringe, none at all for middle England. So what's his warning? In a nutshell, that a devolution settlement which many English voters believe treats them less fairly than their counterparts in Scotland and Wales had become "one of the festering sores in English politics".

Giants, sores, add to that "fiscal discriminations"and you've got a fairly lurid warning.

According to Mr Field, English voters are becoming increasingly resentful of a system which allows a range of those "fiscal discriminations" including:

Free residential care for the elderly in Scotland;
NHS provision of drugs in Scotland - such as Lucentis to treat sight loss - which are not available in England;
Freedom from university top-up fees in Scotland;
No prescription charges in Wales.

(If only for the sake of Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, who appears before the Welsh Select Committee today, he might have added Mr Bradshaw's favourite policy: free car parking in Welsh hospitals.)

But hang on. In order to be devolved - surely you have to be devolved FROM something! If all four administrations pursued identical policies, then isn't that an awful lot of superfluous politicians, buildings and paperwork? On the other hand, the idea that the citizens of England get a better deal in some regards from being different from the other three administrations simply doesn't wash, according to Frank, who sees a much deeper resentment brewing.

"My constituents do not believe it is fair that they should face a constitutional discrimination as well as meeting additional costs which identical people in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, do not face. This, in a sentence, is the English Question."

It's the same question that caused a parish council in England to start an online poll asking residents in the village of Audlem, nine miles from the border, whether they wanted to become part of Wales with its free this and that. They got a slot on Have I got News for You, five minutes of fame and a straightforward answer: no ta, not if it means pledging our allegiance to the land of far longer waiting lists.

So, this being politics, is it about money, or about power? A bit of both perhaps.

And the "inevitable" result of growing anger over the devolution settlement will be an English Parliament to match the devolved assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, with a UK Parliament dealing only with matters which have not been delegated to the four nations of the United Kingdom.

But his main warning isn't about the break up of the United Kingdom, real or imagined. It's a darker message. He says many traditional Labour voters have already switched to the BNP because they believe the Government has let them down on the issue of "uncontrolled immigration". And more could do so if the far-right party is allowed to take control of the debate on the English Question.

Now that is a lurid warning.

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