MPs say England needs to come to the devolution party

Why should the Celts have all the committees of the great and the good?

A committee of MPs has recommended the setting up of a UK-wide constitutional convention to try to answer the question: "What do we want the UK to look like in 10 or 20 years time?"

The convention, an idea previously suggested by the Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, would involve all the nations of the UK. MPs on the political and constitutional reform select committee say it should not be seen merely as a reaction to the Scottish referendum next year.

Their report says: "Regardless of the results of the 2014 referendum on Scotland's independence, there is in our view, a need to consider both how the increasingly devolved parts of the Union interact with each other, and what we, as residents of the UK, want the union to look like going forward.

"This would create a national conversation about what we want a settled 21st-century United Kingdom democracy to look like. Such a conversation is sorely needed. It should begin immediately."

The MPs say the priority should be to answer what they call "the English Question", a task they would assign to a "preconvention". Their report defines it as "the fact that England, unlike the other parts of the Union, is still governed centrally, and, outside London, does not have its own devolved settlement".

It warns: "The failure to answer the English question, and the reality that the largest nation in the Union is still micromanaged from Whitehall, has and will continue to cause tension with the rest of the union. The devolution of power from Westminster to other parts of the Union is a principle, and not simply a political expedient.

"Some have argued that if devolved powers were extended to England, this would, in part, address the asymmetry of the current devolution settlement, and allow UK to move forward and embrace the future as a quasi-federal union."

The report looks at some of the phraseology involved in constitutional debate. "Asymmetric devolution" is redefined as "bespoke devolution" (suits you, sir?). The MPs also try to explain the difference between a commission and a convention, which is handy for those of us who sometimes confuse the two.

A previous report by the committee suggested that local government in England could become the vehicle for devolution. Today's report says: "Of all the tectonic plates within the union, it is England which most needs to be lubricated and adjusted to the new reality of an effective union, within a key framework of national competences.

"The government should now with all urgency, create a forum, for the people of England to discuss if, and how, they wish to follow in the footsteps of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and access substantial devolved powers, clearly defined in statute, for their local communities".

Tony Blair's Labour government did, of course, consider English devolution beyond London, but the idea did not survive an overwhelmingly hostile vote in the north east.

But committee chair Graham Allen said: "A little well intention tinkering with Westminster Parliamentary procedure [McKay] is not enough. England needs to come to the devolution party too and as we approach the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015 there couldn't be a better time to generate public interest throughout the Union not just in our constitutional heritage but in settling the democratic future of the United Kingdom."

Plenty there for MPs - and hacks - to think about as we disappear for the parliamentary recess.

I'll be back after the break. Happy Easter.