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16 October 2014
A State Apart

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The British-Irish Council and Devolution

by Vernon Bogdanor

Government & Opposition 34 (1999); 287-98. (Published by London School of Economics and Political Science)

The British-Irish Council and England

There is one striking absentee from the British-Irish Council, the largest of the national units in these islands - England - containing 46 million of the 60 million people whom the Council will represent. For membership of the Council is to depend upon constitutional status, and England has no constitutional status. 'Smile at us', G.K. Chesterton wrote in his poem, The Secret People, 'pay us, pass us, but do not quite forget; for we are the people of England that never have spoken yet'. England has never spoken because, constitutionally England does not exist. Indeed it has been said that 'England is a state of mind, not a consciously organized political institution.' 2. There has been no English parliament since 1536. There is no English Office comparable to the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland Offices, the 'English' ministers being so only because their non-English functions have been hived off to the territorial departments. The 'English' legal system comprises both England and Wales, the Treaty of Union which the Scots claim to have agreed with the 'English' in 1707, was agreed, certainly, with the English state but this at the time comprised both the English and Welsh people.

England is hardly mentioned in the Scotland Act, the Government of Wales Act or the Northern Ireland Act, and yet England is, in many respects, the key to the success of devolution. This is because any devolution settlement has to be acceptable not just to the Scots and the Welsh, but also to the English who return 529 of the 659 Members of Parliament to Westminster and who constitute 85 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom. The success of devolution will depend in large part upon whether English opinion believes it to be a fair and equitable settlement.

Devolution will accentuate an already existing constitutional imbalance in favour of Scotland and Wales. They already have their own Secretaries of State pressing their case at cabinet level; they are over-represented in the House of Commons by comparison with England; and there is a good case for arguing that Scotland at least benefits more from public spending than those English regions whose GDP per head is lower. Those living in the more under-privileged regions of England, such as the north-east, or the north-west, may already regard themselves as second class because they have no territorial ministers able to argue their case in cabinet. After devolution, they may come to believe that they are third class, since they have no assemblies either. It is by no means clear that a constitutional imbalance which has up to now been accepted will continue to be accepted once the devolved bodies are in operation.

Scottishness and Welshness, and in the nineteenth century, Irishness, were formed partly in opposition to Englishness, but for the English, the terms 'British' and 'English' have often been used interchangeably. Walter Bagehot's great book, analysed by generations of students, was called The English Constitution, 3, although there had been no English constitution since the time of the Union with Scotland in 1707.

The notion of Britishness is becoming more fragile than it was a generation ago. But what then is Englishness? England has long been the stumbling block for supporters of devolution in the United Kingdom. For England, since the time of the Union with Scotland in 1707, has resisted integration, but has been unsympathetic to federalism. It is the supposedly unified and homogeneous nature of England which has been primarily responsible for the preservation of the unitary state. It is largely for this reason that England has not until now sought devolution. Until it does, governments have taken the view that it ought not to have devolution thrust upon it. For there could be no justification in requiring England to accept devolution against its wishes just because there has been devolution to Scotland and Wales. To force devolution upon England, far from assuaging resentment against Scotland and Wales, could well intensify it.

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