UKIP’s attempts to turn itself into more than a single-issue party have led them into choppy waters in the past, with their proposals to impose a very southern-English-looking form of ‘Britishness’ across the UK, and constituting the devolved legislatures with MPs who would sit in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast for part of the week and London for the rest. In his speech to his party’s conference on Friday, reported here by the BBC, Nigel Farage restated support for the idea of an English parliament. The policy seems to originate with one of UKIP’s MEPs, Paul Nuttall; there’s a more detailed exposition of it here and the full policy document is here.
In itself, UKIP support for an English Parliament isn’t particularly new (it figured in their manifest for the 2010 UK election, though not in such bald terms). Nor is this yet adopted formally as their party policy. However, there is a significant change, as now they’re supporting a wider ‘Englishness’ platform extending to matters such as funding and a separate ‘home rule’ government, as well as separate elections for the English Parliament. By the same token, Nuttall proposes retaining the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved legislatures in their present form – rather than constituting them with MPs from those parts of the UK, as was their policy at the 2010 election.
There are several flaws with this policy, starting with the fact that the same matters are not devolved in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland (policing, the courts and criminal justice in Wales being the main one, also social security in Northern Ireland). But the big problem here is a familiar one: a separate English parliament implies something very like a federal division of powers between the UK as a state and its four constituent parts. England, however, would dwarf the others as it has around 85 per cent of the UK’s population, and that is not a recipe for a lasting or stable union. No federal system with any comparable imbalance has been able to last for long. It’s hard to see how unionism and an English parliament are compatible, attractive though it may be at first blush.
For English nationalists, that may not be a problem. But UKIP have to overcome the relationship between this policy, and their concerns about the EU. On that score, an awful lot hangs for them on the UK as a unit surviving. It’s one thing to advocate the UK as a whole distancing itself from, or leaving, the EU. It’s another to advocate that for England alone. The difference in population may not be huge, but the wider implications of an independent ‘little England’ outside both the UK and the EU would be tough indeed. UKIP risk undermining their wider goal of withdrawal from the EU by pursuing the narrower one of winning English votes by adopting the cause of an English Parliament.
UPDATE, 24 January 2014: As UKIP have removed their older policy documents from their website and the link above no longer works, I’ve uploaded their 2011 ‘Union for a Future’ paper so readers can see the document for themselves. It’s available here.