Comment: The McKay commission is not enough – we need an English parliament

By Robin Tilbrook

Last Monday, the McKay commission on 'The Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons' published its report.

This was a commission which was both a manifesto pledge for the Conservative party and also in the coalition agreement. Nevertheless it took the government 18 months to get around to setting it up. When it did so, in January 2012, it was widely called the government's 'West Lothian Question Commission'.

The term 'West Lothian question' arose during the 1977 devolution debates in the Commons.

Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for West Lothian, asked: "For how long will English constituencies and English honourable members tolerate honourable members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on British politics, while they have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?"

The  so called 'West Lothian question' has until now been a deliberately opaque phrase used by the British establishment to talk about the 'English Question' – without having to lower themselves to mention the 'E' word.

But this was never really a 'West Lothian question' – it always was the 'English question'.  It asks: "How does England fit into the post-devolutionary settlement?"

I am therefore pleased that this report accepts the end of the British establishment's attempts to ignore us and apply the tactics of 'Cordon Sanitaire' or denial to the English question and to now call it by its proper name.

I am also pleased that Sir William McKay has clearly and unequivocally stated that the status quo of no constitutional recognition for England "cannot be sustained".

This may herald a major shift in the perception of the British establishment towards England. Although the report rather dubiously claims only 20% support for an English parliament it should be borne in mind that, even if the figure were true, that Tony Blair won his last landslide election victory with the votes of only 21.6% of the electorate so 20% cannot easily be ignored.

In this Commission there were six commissioners under the chairmanship of Sir William McKay KCB. Only two of the commissioners were in any sense arguably English. Both of these were however about as British and as establishment as it is possible to be! They are both retired 'first parliamentary counsel' – ie top ranking civil servants whose legal work is both the drafting of government bills and advising Whitehall ministers, and the committees of the Houses of Commons and Lords as the bills progress through Westminster’s legislative process.

It is also worth considering the commission's government-imposed terms of reference:

"To consider how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom, following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish parliament, the Northern Ireland assembly and the national assembly for Wales."

So there was not even a mention of that dreaded word 'England'!

Also there was to be no consideration of the need for an English parliament or any other possible options. This is despite the fact that no respected constitutional expert thinks that mere tinkering with the procedures of the House of Commons would either work or would begin to answer the democratic representational aspect of the English question not to mention any question about the lack of an English government. 

The start point therefore was that this commission was deliberately set up not to have any interest whatsoever in the English nation, English nationalism or even in democratic fairness for England. I gave evidence to the commission for the English Democrats and so did Eddie Bone for the Campaign for an English Parliament.

Instead the government's approach appears to have been both to delay and to confuse with a splash of the minimum of acknowledgment or tentative engagement. Its approach also deliberately confined discussion to only those recommendations that will have the very minimum of impact on the way Westminster currently operates.

One of the commissioners, the Edinburgh professor Charles Jeffrey, has said:  "There is a sense – as in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s – that the legitimacy of governing arrangements is now in question in England."

Professor Jeffrey is right and what is more the sense of Englishness is now rapidly rising in England just as Scottishness did over the last thirty years.

The recently published 2011 Census results show that England has over 32 million people (or 60.4%) who have stated they have only English national identity. A further 4.8 million people (or 9.1%) stated that their National identity is 'English and British'.

In sharp contrast with this nearly 70% English national identity there were only a mere ten million people (or 19.2%) who claimed to be 'British Only'.

This report comes after a sustained campaign of over ten years by the English Democrats and the Campaign for an English Parliament to keep the flickering flame of England and of English rights burning even in times when government ministers like John Prescott could claim that "there is no such nationality as English" and when all three of the British establishment parties were trying to break up England into "regions".

This victory is therefore only a battle not the campaign and certainly not the war. The struggle for England must now go on but now with renewed optimism and vigour.

So I have a message for ministers and for their West Lothian commission – the English are awakening and when fully roused they will not be happy with a Westminster or a Whitehall which have betrayed the trust placed in them to be fair to England and to the English nation!

The McKay commission report does not appease patriotic English men and women one bit.  Nothing less than home rule for England will do.

Robin Tilbrook is the chairman of the English Democrats, a solicitor, and former president of the Mid-Essex Law Society.

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