The Institute for Public Policy Research published a short paper earlier this week reporting on a survey of MPs about the ‘English question’ after 10 years of devolution. The paper, The English Question: The View from Westminster. What do our MPs think of ‘The English Question 10 years after devolution? is available here. The authors are Mike Kenny, also of Sheffield University, and Guy Lodge (formerly a colleague at the Constitution Unit), and an ‘analysis’ piece by them is here. News coverage from the Daily Telegraph (concentrating on financial issues, but once again getting wrong what the Barnett formula actually does) is here.
The survey has some interesting findings. It identifies a widespread consensus among MPs that there is a problem, and that the status quo is not acceptable. There’s broad support for some mild symbolic measures to recognise England – St George’s day as a public holiday, a specifically English national anthem for sporting fixtures, and so on. There’s also consensus about the ‘unfairness’ of financial arrangements, particularly but not only among Conservatives. That in turn has excited a hostile response from the SNP, that ‘Tory MPs want to slash Scotland’s budget’ (the SNP’s press release is available here). One might add that the SNP’s response suggests they haven’t read the report closely enough to note what it also says about fiscal autonomy. It reports that Conservatives were more supportive of the idea of fiscal devolution than the other parties (even though a lot of backbench Tories find this idea goes against the bone, seeing it as a potentially-dangerous concession to ‘the nats’).
Beyond that, however, there is widespread disagreement about what the answer to the constitutional dimensions of the English question should be. The split is overwhelmingly along party lines: Tories support ‘English votes for English laws’ solutions, while Labour and Lib Dem MPs generally support ‘localist’ or ‘regionalist’ solutions. The Conservative MPs who responded were at best lukewarm about localism (despite their party’s official policy), and strongly opposed to ‘regional’ ones. There was also a strong body of support for the view that the present funding arrangements were ‘unfair’, strongest among Conservative MPs but with considerable backing from Labour and Lib Dems too.
What’s really striking about these findings is the extent to which party affiliations appear to determine their views about constitutional approaches. These are clearly tied to party self-interest. They don’t appear to be rooted in any wider conception of what’s in the best interests of England, or the UK as a whole – just the best interest of their party. This is highly dangerous. Accepting that there’s a problem, but failing even to try to find a compromise solution to resolve it, is a route to disaster. It means that a serious grievance goes unredressed – that the political process fails to find a solution to a difficult but important political problem. Can anyone blame the public for being disaffected with politics if politicians’ pursuit of a narrow self-interest has such results?
There’s a second interesting finding in the report. It asks if the respondents think that Scotland will become independent, and if so when. 58 per cent say ‘never’; 20 per cent ‘don’t know’, and 22 per cent say it, will in period between 5 and 50 years (mostly between 5 and 20 years’ time). What’s striking about this is the extent to which it conflicts with the wide understanding of many involved in Scotland’s constitutional debates of where Scottish opinion is. The fact that support for independence is relatively low, and consistently has been since 1999 (commanding the support of around a third of the Scottish electorate, or a bit less), is no reason for such complacency. It’s clear from a wide range of quantitative evidence that Scots want clear, institutional recognition of Scotland’s distinctiveness within the Union. That implies a form of extensive devolution – more than the present settlement allows. This sort of view is based on the assumption that, if forced to choose, Scots will back a union that grants only limited recognition of that distinctiveness rather than independence. Will they? It’s far from certain. And believing that this is how things appear to the people of Scotland runs contrary to the idea that the Union should reflect the wishes of the people of its various parts (as well as the unionist parties’ referendum-avoiding strategy). This position looks like a heck of a gamble.