It’s Saint George’s Day, which means it's that time of year when Unionists must once again don their armour, saddle their horses, and ride out to slay that most terrible of dragons: an English parliament.
This proposal rears its head every so often as a possible solution to the increasingly undeniable strain that two decades of devolution has put on the constitution of the United Kingdom. It is in fact one of the surest means of guaranteeing the dissolution of the Union.
Unfortunately, the reasons for this are pretty much exactly the same reasons that the creation of the other devolved legislatures was a bad idea. That means that there is some political danger in accepting its logic. Instead, calls for an English parliament tend to get woven into the increasingly elaborate schema of magical thinking required to believe, in 2021, that devolution to national legislatures is good for Britain.
So let’s take this opportunity to remind ourselves why the very last thing a Unionist government should do is set up such an institution.
The fundamental problem with devolution is that it creates a class of people — for whom I coined the term ‘devocrats’ — whose interests are aligned against those of the rest of the United Kingdom. This is the class of politicians, staffers, think tankers, journalists, and assorted hangers-on who extract rents, be that in power, pay, or prestige, from the operation and aggrandisement of the devolved legislatures.
It is always in their interests to offload the blame for anything that goes wrong onto remote Westminster, and they invariably insist that the remedy is more money and more powers for themselves. They never hesitate to play the national card to mask their failures and ‘other’ their critics, even to the ludicrous extent of a Welsh Labour minister accusing Michael Gove of ‘colonial attitudes’ when he dared to compare school performance across Offa’s Dyke.
This is why support for devolution among the political class in Scotland and Wales appears to bear no relation to how devolution performs in areas such as education and health. The tireless work of this standing lobby is why devolution has done the very opposite of stabilising the constitution or strengthening the Union.
Accept this analysis, and the dangers of replicating our Welsh and Scottish errors on an English scale are obvious. Just like the others, an English parliament would spawn a devocracy that would have every incentive to enrich and aggrandise itself by posturing against Westminster. Worse, they would have a strong motivation to whip up anger against fiscal transfers, usually the one feature of the United Kingdom you can count on devocrats elsewhere to defend.
On top of that, any England-wide institution would create a first minister and cabinet that would contend directly with their British counterparts in stature. An English Yeltsin would, in time, be the almost certain result.
Advocates of an English parliament don’t tend to accept this framing. How could they? But where it is not rooted directly in English nationalism, which is intellectually coherent but nothing to do with Unionism, such analysis as they do offer is hardly persuasive.
It would scarcely bring power closer to the people while governing more than four-fifths of the same territory as Westminster. It is unlikely to be the key to a ‘federal solution’ when there is no happy precedent for a federation where one part is so much larger than all the others.
Nor is there any reason, if you actually listen to them and take them seriously, to think that English representation is any salve to the grievances manufactured and exploited by the SNP. There is something of Walter Mitty about listening to people saying ‘we don’t feel British and want independence’, nodding thoughtfully, and replying ‘and how would you like to elect our new Senate of the Nations and Regions?’
Unionism needs urgently to get over the enduring delusion that there is a grand constitutional scheme that can ‘solve’ separatist nationalism (as opposed to contain and defeat it, as more realistic and limited proposals seek to do), especially if the attempt is made at the expense of the British institutions that truly bind this country together. Bargaining is a stage of grief, and we have no cause for grief. We can win.