Does the Conservative Party want to be a party for the English or a party for the Union, asks Andrew Lilico
So, the Unionists won in the Scottish referendum. In the end it wasn’t even close. But, during the campaign, the Prime Minister and others agreed a rapid timetable for additional devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament and Executive, followed immediately after victory with the announcement by the Prime Minister that, in tandem, there would be a broader set of constitutional reforms to tackle the notorious ‘West Lothian Question’ .
In these new reforms, the Conservative Party must choose whether it is fundamentally a Unionist party or an English Nationalist party.
The English Nationalist view would be that England is a country like Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, and that, if the other countries of the United Kingdom are to have devolved powers, England must have them too.
The Unionist position, by contrast, ranks the unity and integrity of the United Kingdom above the unity and integrity of any individual component of the United Kingdom. In my view, the Unionist position must have four elements.
The rejection of dominance
The Unionist, regarding Britain as one entity, must reject the idea that any region should dominate in influence or affluence.
The rejection of federalism
We should conceive of whatever new arrangement arises for the Union as a form of regional governance. There is no passing of fundamental sovereignty to ‘states’ or ‘statelets’ of the Union. Sovereignty must remain with the Crown in Parliament.
The rejection of permanence
Like any form of non-sovereign local government, future reforms might change things very considerably, reorganising boundaries or relevant subdivisions. And responsibility for how such governance works must remain with the Crown-in-Parliament.
The ‘if one suffers, we all suffer’ principle
In my view, assemblies and ‘parliaments’ are manifestly a bad form of government. But as a Unionist, my belief is that we must have common forms of governance throughout the Union. So if two components of England-and-Wales, say, are going to have assemblies (Wales and London), then we all must suffer that way of doing things for a while.
Bearing these principles in mind, it appears to me that the Unionist way forward must be as follows.
We should have, throughout England and-Wales, a series of regional and city assemblies that is each of a similar population scale to those in Wales, Scotland and London, i.e. perhaps between 4 and 8 million persons each. That means somewhere between 6 and 12 additional regional assemblies.
These assemblies should have powers to set income taxes in particular, along with a range of other taxes such as stamp duty on house purchases, social insurance (a regionally-based form of National Insurance, probably taking the form of a Health Insurance, a Pension Contribution, an Unemployment Insurance, Sickness Insurance, and so on). They should have powers to spend money on health, education, the police, and other matters. They should have no powers to raise debt. They may have local powers to set certain civil law matters and relating to corporate taxes on business activities. They should receive VAT revenues though the levels would be set nationally (see below).
There should be a Parliament in Westminster, almost identical to thatnow. That Parliament would have responsibility for defence, cross-regional policing, trade, trans-regional transport networks, trans-regional energy networks, interaction with international bodies such as the EU, criminal laws, civil laws such as they related to crossregional or national activities, foreign policy, and other such matters.
The Westminster Parliament would fund its activities and departments via taxes on transport (e.g. fuel duty, air passenger duty), excise duties, tariff income, duties on corporate activities that were national in nature, royalties on Crown claims such as minerals (e.g. oil revenues), and certain other activities that were national or crossregional in nature. The Westminster Parliament would also be responsible for all debt-raising.
In addition to the above, the Westminster Parliament would set, each year,a portion of each region’s GDP that it would have to set aside in taxes, to be placed into a common pot. The Westminster Parliament would then consider whether to supplement that pot via debt-raising or repay debt using some of the funds in that pot (along with servicing debt from Westminster’s other revenue streams). The revised pot, after new debt-raising and debt repayment, would then be allocated by the Westminster Parliament to the regional assemblies as into-region transfers. That should not be done via any automatic formula. There should instead be an explicit vote each year on the allocation of regional funds.
Westminster should be responsible for the funding of (or securing from theprivate sector or otherwise of funds for) inter-regional or national transport networks (e.g. motorways, railways, airports). Westminster should have powers to engage in other forms of discretionary capital projects within particular regions.
Such an arrangement could be made to work, whilst retaining the essential character of Westminster politics and the integrity of the Union. It would neuter some of the centrifugal forces created by Labour’s half-baked devolution — forces that would be greatly amplified by either an English Parliament or a English MPs Grand Committee on English Laws. No-one would assume that a North East Assembly leader were the ‘Prime Minister’ of a country. They would therefore quickly cease to ascribe the same significance to the officers of the Welsh Assembly and government. In due course, they might even undermine some of the sense of difference of theScottish arrangements (though of course Scotland was different – with its own laws and Crown – even before devolution, so there should be no aspiration to destroy, altogether, the sense that Scotland is a country unto itself – it always has been).
The above sketch seems to me to be the Unionist path. The Conservative Party now faces the great dilemma: does it want, fundamentally, to be a party for the English or a party for the Union?
Andrew Lilico is Executive Director and Principal of Europe Economics
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Conference 2014 on 27/09/2014. Published online 26/07/2016