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The English Question

Brian Taylor | 15:55 UK time, Monday, 29 October 2007

And there’s more. Also at the weekend, it was suggested that the Conservatives are set to favour Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s suggested answer to the West Lothian question.

Sir Malcolm apparently feels that there is something lacking in the customary Labour Ministerial reply which, to paraphrase, is: "Go away and stop asking such irritating questions."

The Rifkind wheeze is that there would be an English Grand Committee in the Commons (given the numbers, it would be Vast rather than merely Grand, but let that pass).

Said EGC would vote on purely English legislation. The House of Commons, as a whole, would technically retain the final voting right but members from Scotland would, by convention, abstain.

Herewith a few lines from a book published in 1999, at the outset of the devolution adventure:

    "It is reasonable to argue that the great conundrum which has yet to be tackled seriously is the question of how to govern England under the reformed constitution which is emerging.
    "Perhaps I should start with a few trite truisms. The English Question is first and foremost for the people of England to address: that is if they believe there is a problem at all.
    "It affects Scotland only inasmuch as there may be a connected effort to alter Scotland’s representation at Westminster.
    "In reality, as opposed to perception, the governance of England has not been altered at all by Scottish devolution."

Can’t fool you guys. Wouldn’t try. Those are among the opening sentiments in a chapter from my own little effort, snappily titled "The Scottish Parliament."

Wouldn’t change much, especially the last line.

To reprise, the good and sensible people of England were apparently content to be governed by the Union Parliament, pre devolution. That governance has not changed. At all. In any way.

Indeed, "Scotland’s representation at Westminster", as I foreshadowed, has been cut from 72 MPs to 59. That means England’s intrinsic dominance at Westminster, quite reasonable given relative population, has been entrenched and indeed enhanced.

    "In reality, as opposed to perception, the governance of England has not been altered at all by Scottish devolution."

To reprise, again, it has been much more common in the past for Scotland to vote one way, in terms of seats, and to receive a government of a different colour when seats from elsewhere in the UK are included.

That has happened 14 times since the reform act of 1832, including during the Thatcher and Major years (poll tax, anyone?).

It has only afflicted the voters of England on six occasions.

If you like, devolution prevents that 14 becoming 15. It does nothing, however, to prevent six becoming seven.

All of which is fact. However, as I also envisaged in 1999 (and previously), perception matters.

The Tories calculate that they can win votes on the back of disquiet in England. I do not remotely chastise them for that. The grumbling disquiet is genuine, even if it is occasionally based on less than complete analysis.

However, there is another element. Tory leaders since William Hague, since the party lost power, have toyed with the issue of "English votes on English issues".

They have tended to back off on the grounds that this is a strategy which, whatever else it does, might be thought to run counter to staunch support for the Union. Which, one might think, poses a problem for the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Right now, the Tories are facing the same choice. Again. Once more, to reprise, "the English Question is first and foremost for the people of England to address."


“In reality, as opposed to perception, the governance of England has not been altered at all by Scottish devolution.”

I'm not sure about this. There is now a class of MPs who can vote on English issues without any accountability to anyone affected, even through the reciprocity of other MPs voting on legislation that will affect their constituents.

We have seen the practical implications of that in relation to tuition fees and foundation hospitals.

  • 2.
  • At 05:46 PM on 29 Oct 2007,
  • Grassy Troll wrote:

I understand Brian's point - but it's misleading.
Devolution is one of the most significant changes in UK political make up in modern history. The system has altered and I believe that Malcolm Rifkind makes a good point, despite the fact I am anything but a Tory voting troll!
Labour have prepared for this onslaught like a farmer warning off the plebs with a blunderbuss, referring endlessly (and tediously) to the example of 'Crossrail' being a London project - the point being that gets voted on by all MPs.Their conceit is that this ridiculous talk of only getting Mps to vote on issues if it affects their constituents is silly!!!
I think they have chosen this example poorly. How much say have English MPs got on Scottish transport issues? None! Yet my constituency representatives get a vote in Scotand (MSP) and a vote on Crossrail (MP). There's a clear imbalance there.
I want to remain British and I believe the best way is to establish a similar experience of devolved issues for all countries (based if you like on the Scottish Parliament)with Westminster there for the agreed 'National issues'.
An additional change if this became reality would be to reduce MP numbers as they would be discussing less business.
See it as an economy of scale!

  • 3.
  • At 05:51 PM on 29 Oct 2007,
  • PMK wrote:

Scottish Grand Committee failed to stop the poll tax - enough said about Sir Malcolm's proposed solution! Also, neatly for him, as a Scot representing an English constituency he would still get a say on every decision!

Part of me likes this idea, but only so the Scottish public get to see their MPs asked (ever so politely) to leave the Westminster chamber while other matters are discussed by "full/proper MPs" (representing only England). Would the current Speaker be allowed to stay or would "The Chairman of Ways and Means" (a Tory representing an Essex constituency) have to cover for him? Even Tam Dalyell used to break his own self-imposed rule about not voting on English-only matters - due to the vast impact it would have on the "Scottish budget". The knock on effects of health and education choices in England have been devastatingly demonstrated in the pathetic new financial settlement for Scotland.

  • 4.
  • At 06:04 PM on 29 Oct 2007,
  • Peter wrote:

Tom, the point is pre-devolution these issues could be voted on by Scots MPs and because the UK is made up of more than one country, it may not have affected their constituents.

Perhaps Brian could answer:
If I recall correctly the old Scottish grand committee had English MPs voting so that the Tories could actually win some votes (technically all committees have the same party composition (roughly) as the full House)? If so presumably some Scots MPs would still have to vote - so in effect you may exclude 30-40 MPs, proving that this is all about perception.

If the Tories stoke this to win in England, Scotland will be preparing for independence 10 years from now!

  • 5.
  • At 06:06 PM on 29 Oct 2007,
  • Alan palmer wrote:

From England!
The whole problem here is that we are now a semi federal state, until a solution is found for England, either an English Parliament with an English Executive, or preferably several English Regional Parliaments then the problem will not be solved. It is pointless to talk about Scottish MPs and English Politics; we need to change in England, until then Westminster is the place for all UK MPs to vote.

  • 6.
  • At 06:20 PM on 29 Oct 2007,
  • louise wrote:


First of all I did watch it at the weekend. Liked your tie by the way. Secondly surely what we have going on with the tories is in fact devolution for england by another name. The name for this just happens to be english grand commitee. I agree that england should only vote on english issues. However as you stated on the programme the other day spending on health by an english grand comittee does have strong implications for the barnett formula. The only possible solution i can see to retain the UK is in fact further devolution with each party taking control of their own finances and maybe putting into a pot, a UK pot for those things that are joint issues such as defence and the maintenance of the monarchy.

  • 7.
  • At 06:24 PM on 29 Oct 2007,
  • Donald McCaskey wrote:

Tom @ #1.

Could you remind me, Tom, how this was different pre-devolution when a class of MPs could vote on Scottish issues without any accountability to anyone affected? For years, Scots law was made by English Tory MPs, even though Scotland was effectively a Tory free zone.

  • 8.
  • At 06:28 PM on 29 Oct 2007,
  • Peter, Fife wrote:

They have airbrushed the torch from their logo and the word Unionist from their moniker; I would not be surprised to see a hoodie and the cross of St George to be painted in; there is no shame in this party, I call my first witness Malcolm Rifkind.

The obvious flaw in Rifkind’s plan is who will limit the money those English MPs could grab from the Treasury?

  • 9.
  • At 07:19 PM on 29 Oct 2007,
  • conway wrote:

I have to agree with the first poster(Tom) as long as the party in power at Westminster uses Scottish MPs to pass bills that have no bearing on Scotland ,(again as the above poster foundation hospitals) and English MPs have no way of having the same influence on what happens in Scotland ,then in that respect Brian you are incorrect .As a Unionist Brian you cant have it both ways.
There is inbalance in the political make up of the UK and I would rather it was addressed now rather than allowing relationships between Scotland and England deteriorate.
I would use Canada as an example of how a new political UK system could work.

  • 10.
  • At 07:34 PM on 29 Oct 2007,
  • Hugo wrote:

Tom, at #1
"We have seen the practical implications of that in relation to tuition fees and foundation hospitals."

Is this fact or perception?

Either way, support an English Parliament for England and a separate Union Parliament for the Union.

  • 11.
  • At 10:55 PM on 29 Oct 2007,
  • Munro Ross wrote:


neither of these would have been carried if it was not for Scottish Labour MPs voting. Why should they not follow the example of the SNP who abstain from voting on matters which are purely English?

  • 12.
  • At 12:01 AM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • Neil Small wrote:

What is worrying is that the UK is finished.

The Tories began it with the implementation of the Poll Tax in Scotland, effectively political suicide. But Mrs T never thought that Labour could possibly regroup in England to be strong enough to win.

Then Mr Blair decided to allow us to have devolution. Oops.

Mr Salmond - returned to the political fold in Scotland knowing he was the only one strong enough to win, helped of course by a pair of Labour First Ministers who resembled local councillors and a voting system which allowed him to say "Alex Salmonf for First Minister".

The Tories have a fair point, but the destruction of the UK is highly dangerous and no one has thought out the problems:

Armed Forces pensions - who pays them
Time zones (the English want CET)

The list goes on. Once again, short term political gain has screwed up the UK. Once again it is Labour.

Having raised the issue, you can guarantee that the Tories are going to wipe Labour off the map. The Lib Dems are now an irrelevance, and there are simply too many problems for Labour to solve. All this before PFI really starts to bite.

No wonder Tony Blair decided to go.


It's a fact that without the votes of Scottish MPs the Government would have lost those two votes.

It's a fact that those MPs' constituencies were not affected by those policies.

Whether it was fair of them to impose those policies on England is, I suppose, a matter of perception.

  • 14.
  • At 08:43 AM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • Scamp wrote:

Support an English Parliament for the rump of the Union and a separate Scottish Parliament for an independent Scotland.

Give the English their freedom. They deserve it.

  • 15.
  • At 10:02 AM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • Alexander Bisset wrote:

#1 Quote "I'm not sure about this. There is now a class of MPs who can vote on English issues without any accountability to anyone affected"

However as Brian points out how is this any different to what happened before. Westminster always has debated and passed laws that effect only England. Well to be a pedant they are almost always "England & Wales" a fact that only highlights the problem of the English failing to distinguish between England only and the Union.

Which begs the question other than the relatively trivial bills that bog the UK parliament down, very localised issues, waterways in Norfolk for example, does the UK parliament ever debate England only issues or are they still almost always England & Wales. If so I imagine the Welsh will have a word or two about that one.

  • 16.
  • At 11:07 AM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • R Knight wrote:

The "Federal Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" steps ever closer towards reality as the only certain way to save the Union.

A new Federal Parliament of Great Britain & Northern Ireland could be built in Manchester, where elected representatives from the constituent countries could meet to discuss matters of Defence, Foreign Relations and Macroeconomic policy.

It would probably only cost the same as Holyrood and Victoria Quay to set up and England could have the whole of Westminster to play with. (They could even build it where the Supercasino was destined to go).

Any takers?

  • 17.
  • At 11:07 AM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • harry wrote:

let scotland have a referendum as soon as possible,if they go their own way fair enough----if they do i could never see an ENGLISH first minister in the chair so set up an english parliament and lets have ENGLAND run by english men/women just as the welsh , irish and scots are run by their own people

  • 18.
  • At 11:13 AM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • Adam wrote:

And the other question that the likes of Rifkind never address in this situation is, were some system of English MPs only for English issues to be brought in, then surely logic dictates that we in Scotland should get the rest of our MPs back?

The current system of disenfranchising the Scots on UK issues in response to their influence on English issues has it's drawbacks anyway, since it's essentially a form of trying to make two wrongs into a right. But any argument for it disappears if Scottish MPs stop voting on English issues

  • 19.
  • At 12:16 PM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • john Kersley wrote:

There is a perception especially here in London and the South East, that any Scot worth his salt gets on his bike and comes South. The result being that Scotland is seen as populated by lazy, low tax paying, highly subsidised folk. Representing fully 10% of the UK population, Scotland had better hope we in the South East are wrong, or you will get what you wish for and the English may well vote for their own independence. Democracy must be fair and seen to be fair, today it isn't!

  • 20.
  • At 12:23 PM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • Tom Berney wrote:

It would be pretty anomalous to have a situation where a minister can campaign for a policy and draft the legislation but not be allowed to vote on it - or indeed following the logic be accountable for it to the place it was being debated - so Rifkind's proposal effectively prevents anyone fromm a Scottish constituency ever becoming PM, health, education or home minister etc.

How would Scots react to being part of a state they can't aspire to lead? No Catholics for Head of State, no Scots for PM - "British" values in action.

I expect if Rifkind were still in Edinburgh rather then Kensington he might see the problem.

  • 21.
  • At 12:37 PM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • James W McCurry wrote:

I totally agree with Hugo concerning an English parliament but he has got it already. It sits in London. As for a Union parliament its days have gone as has the nonsense spoken about the West Lothian question. I cannot remember these 'democrats' calling foul when Scotland was governed by a party it didn't vote for.

  • 22.
  • At 12:37 PM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • Chris Hamilton wrote:

I can see two possible options to move forward with.

1. Lets give England its own Parliament, outside Westminster, with the same rights and privileges as Holyrood. And while we are at it, we can extend the same powers to Cardiff and Belfast. Leaving Westminster to deal with purely UK issues (defence, foreign policy, taxation). This would give the UK a fairer, more federalist approach.

2. We scrap the whole thing, and go back to the "one country, one way" attitude of the days before Holyrood.

But does it really matter anyway? Because as we divide up the powers within the UK, that monolith in Brussels plots to take it all away from us.

  • 23.
  • At 01:26 PM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • Neil wrote:

As others have pointed out, an EGC isn't the first Grand Committee that has been proposed. John Major proposed one for Scottish MPs after his "taking stock exercise", and look how that turned out.

In face due to the Barnett formula it's difficult to envisage truly English only business, since spending levels outside England are decided by spending in England, moreover it politicises the position of Speaker, who in theory is supposed to be neutral. Can you see a non-English Speaker being elected if the Rifkind proposal is brought in?

The Rifkind proposal is in essence a pig in a poke, it introduces several anomalies to clear away just one. Perhaps there is a need for an English Constitutional Convention as Scotland had during the 1980s.

I suspect the only robust long term solution to the West Lothian Question is federalism or seperation. A federal setup can't be too hard to figure out, the USA has had one for over 200 years, if they can do it, so can we.

How about this? Dissolve the House of Commons, replace that with an English Parliament based on PR. Replace the House of Lords with a democratic Senate, elected from across the UK, to handle reserved matters such as defence, review legislation and to glue the UK together (e.g. the Prime Minister being elected/appointed from the Senate).

Can't see Gordon Brown suggesting that as part of his constitutional reforms though...

  • 24.
  • At 02:10 PM on 30 Oct 2007,
  • bruce wrote:

If there was an EGC, would it not (being part of the Westminster nmachine) set precedent and that Scottish policy could then be challended at the level of EU Courts (particularly Human Rights)? If so, there's nothing much that is purely English, with no implications for Scotland. A separately elected English parliament is the solution - if indeed there needs to be one.

"Tom, the point is pre-devolution these issues could be voted on by Scots MPs and because the UK is made up of more than one country, it may not have affected their constituents."

Yes but there was reciprocity because English MPs could also vote on Scottish legislation. Of course, this created its own problems, hence Donald's point below.

"Could you remind me, Tom, how this was different pre-devolution when a class of MPs could vote on Scottish issues without any accountability to anyone affected? For years, Scots law was made by English Tory MPs, even though Scotland was effectively a Tory free zone. "

I can only observe that Scots were not prepared to put up with that situation indefinitely.

  • 26.
  • At 11:10 AM on 31 Oct 2007,
  • Leslie R wrote:

Well said, Neil (comment 23)

For some time i've wondered what English reaction will be when we insist that all decisions impacting on public spending are reserved to a UK parliament or Sentate with built-in safeguards (vetoes, red lines etc) to ensure the smaller nations interests are not steamrollered by the English majority.

I suspect that support for this giant parish council (attr T Blair) will wither away when they realise just how much power they currently wield.

  • 27.
  • At 02:41 PM on 31 Oct 2007,
  • joe glasgow wrote:

any split will come when the English decide it is in their interest. this has always been the case. the union lasted 300 years to benefit the dominant part, and will end in the same way. Salmond and co are in a win-win position now and can only throw it away. If they improve things in Scotland, they get the credit in Scotland, and a backlash in England; look at last weeks headlines. If things go badly in Scotland, just blame London, and benefit from disquiet in Scotland, at the next elections (if they manage to count the votes next time)

  • 28.
  • At 03:12 PM on 31 Oct 2007,
  • Ross wrote:

Where was all this concern whilst Mrs Margaret Thatcher "the Milk Snatcher" of my generation ruled in Scotland when she had not one Elected Scottish Member for Westminster.
Heaven help us if this happens down south. Mrs Thatcher decimated the heavy industry in Scotland maintaining the industry in the North of England where it mattered about the possible votes. Devonport was maintained at the cost of Royal Dockyard Rosyth. The closure of the Alcan plant at Invergordon! and the many closures of the Steel Industry in the west of Scotland.
Is it a case of the medicine being good enough for Scotland and not England.
The wealth of Britain was founded on good Scots economy, and most of the inventions of the modern age came from Scots inventors who really has had the good deal of the Unification off the Parliaments.
Let alone look at the amount of oil revenue used to pay for the redundancies in our heavy industry.

  • 29.
  • At 10:50 AM on 02 Nov 2007,
  • Peter E May wrote:

The MAIN thing is that Westminster MPs with seats in Scotland now get fabulous salaries, pensions and expenses with, post devolution, hardly any responsibilities ie they are POLITICAL TARTS. It is a scandal.

  • 30.
  • At 12:21 PM on 02 Nov 2007,
  • David Black wrote:

Surely the issue would be that the Westmister Parliament was elected by the good folk on both sides of the border as the British Parliament. As Mr Salmond has demonstrated, how people chose to elect their local representation can be vastly different than their UK government.

People elect those best suited to address the specific issues they'll deal with. I'm pretty sure that support for the SNP would have dropped back the Westminster levels if the people of Scotland were electing a Scottish Government with full powers of taxation, immigration and defence.

Similarly the people int he South East of England know that they're counterbalancing the Scottish Labour MPs with their Tory rump. However Like the collapse of Labour's clique in Scotland, if those South East Torries could be kicked without disturbing the world too much, exactly the same would happen.

It's very complex and Mr Rifkind's simplistic dolution is a joke. But I disagree with the fundamental premise of your item... the future of England is for the British to decide, otherwise Britain will not exist.

  • 31.
  • At 12:42 PM on 02 Nov 2007,
  • Robbie wrote:

The SNP claim that separatism is the only answer is madness! We just need a proper federal structure - with Parliaments in all four parts of the union and a federal parliament as well.

And we do need a federal parliament. The SNP's policies in areas such as nuclear weapons only marginalise Scotland.

Yes - we want to see nuclear disarmament!

No - Scotland leaving the Union and giving all the weapons to England doesn't make Scotland or the world safer! If we want to engage on global issues we need a voice. In response to the trident question, Scottish MPs must engage with the UK Government and continue to push for the UK to initiate an international process of disarmament.

  • 32.
  • At 05:52 PM on 02 Nov 2007,
  • Ken Mac wrote:

Has it occured to them that the UK could elect a government without a majority in England meaning said government couldn't get its English only legislation past the English Grand Committee? Unlikely from the Tories point of view as they don't get many seats in Wales and Scotland. Perfectly possible from Labours point of view which has wide support in Wales and Scotland. The Tories have given up on Scotland and Wales, they effectively are an England only party. From their viewpoint the Unionist party no longer believes in the Union despite what they might say.

  • 33.
  • At 09:23 AM on 03 Nov 2007,
  • JohnnyB wrote:

Why do Scots insist on arguing that Thatcher 'ruled' Scotland without there being a single Scots Tory ? She governed the UK when Scotland was part of it rightly or wrongly. Scots now,it seems,want to go their own way and I agree with that. So please get on with it.

The argument is quite simple really.

1. Scotland has (or will have)its own Parliament
2. Wales has (or will have) its own.
3. N.Ireland will go its own way and have, eventually, a Federal system with Eire.
4. That leaves England. It should have Independence too.

All economic/social/political problems can surely be sorted out once and for all?

  • 34.
  • At 07:10 PM on 04 Nov 2007,
  • brett wrote:

You seem to refer quite often about the poll tax system. That was put inplace for a good reason. Mostly to fund Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland.

  • 35.
  • At 01:10 AM on 05 Nov 2007,
  • Kyle wrote:

R Knight #16

Manchester is a bit far away still for MP's from Shetland, Orkney, The Hebrides and such like, considering they have been the ones with the highest need for transport allowances over the years.

couldn't we have it in Scotland this time? It has been in England for the last 300 years after all. I think Aberdeen or Inverness are about equidistant from the border as London.

  • 36.
  • At 10:03 AM on 05 Nov 2007,
  • Simon wrote:

Does Scotland truely want an Tory England next door with no power to control it.

England is right leaning, Labour would have great trouble getting in to power , the Tories would become a party of England and like the whole of England be very unhappy with Scotland . This would kill Labour in England as only Labour could get independence for Scotland through Westminster

  • 37.
  • At 09:34 AM on 08 Nov 2007,
  • Scott Cairns wrote:

If the majority of Scots voted in a referendum for an independent state through an SNP avenue, I would like to see the arguments in the wider world (and the embarrassment for England) if Westminster refused!

Especially given the generally rightful position of the Westminster Parliament in relation to the democratic rights of people in other parts of the world (e.g. Iraq, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, etc, etc).

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