Now Cameron Has to Appease the English
The United Kingdom endures after Scottish voters rejected independence. But the Sept. 18 referendum has unleashed forces that could reshape the 307-year-old union, nudging it toward a more decentralized, American-style democracy.
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised greater self-determination to England, the U.K.’s biggest nation, after the independence campaign stoked English resentment over special treatment for the Scots. Scotland has its own parliament, which has powers over the environment, education, and health care—and, starting in 2016, the right to levy income taxes. England has no parliament of its own; laws affecting its citizens are enacted in the House of Commons in Westminster, which includes members from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. (Northern Ireland and Wales have parliaments with much less clout than Scotland’s.)
The last straw for many in England was London’s last-minute pledge to give the Scots even more autonomy. With mid-September polls suggesting a pro-independence groundswell, the Conservative Cameron joined leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties in announcing they’d grant unspecified new powers to the Scottish Parliament. They also vowed to preserve a controversial funding formula guaranteeing Scotland a share of U.K. government revenue that on a per capita basis is about 20 percent higher than England’s. “Talk about feeding an addiction,” James Gray, a Conservative member of Parliament, fumed on his website in response to the announcement. He went on to write that the rights and interests of the 53 million people of England have been subordinated to the shouting of 5.3 million Scots.
Standing outside 10 Downing Street the morning after the vote, Cameron promised to address those grievances quickly. “The millions of voices of England also must be heard,” he said.
Letting each of the U.K.’s four nations have a greater voice in its own affairs seems like a straightforward idea, especially when viewed from the U.S., where the constitution spells out the federal government’s powers and leaves almost all other powers in the hands of the states. Divvying up power in the U.K. would be a lot more complicated. The country has no written constitution, only a collection of laws and other decisions assembled over the years. England’s lack of a parliament is “an oddity, a messy product of the U.K.’s evolution,” says Tony Travis, a government professor at the London School of Economics.
Yet simply giving England its own parliament would create other problems, says Mark Elliott, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Cambridge. Some 84 percent of the U.K. population lives in England, so a federated U.K. would be akin to a country made up of California, West Virginia, and the Dakotas. “It would be fundamentally unbalanced,” Elliott says, relegating the smaller states to permanent second-class status. “I can’t think of another federal system in the world with one large state and several small ones.”
More likely, Elliott and others say, is that England won’t get its own parliament: Non-English members of the Westminster Parliament will simply be barred from voting on laws that affect only England. Even that wouldn’t be easy to pull off. Laws affecting, say, the regulation of trucking in England would affect trade with Scotland and Wales.
Cameron says he will deliver plans by January to enhance the powers of English lawmakers, so they match those of their Scottish colleagues. He has a strong political reason to press on. Parliamentary elections will be held next year, and polls show the opposition Labour Party running slightly ahead of Cameron’s Conservatives.
Anti-Scottish sentiment has put Labour in a quandary. The party risks alienating English voters if it doesn’t agree to shut Scottish lawmakers out of votes on legislation predominantly affecting England. Scotland’s delegation to Westminster, though, is overwhelmingly Labour. Because England is a Tory stronghold, Labour might be unable to pass key legislation without Scottish participation. The party “could have a parliamentary majority but a minority on English health and education policy,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at the University of Nottingham.
Labour leader Ed Miliband hasn’t taken a position on England-only votes, to the dismay of some within his party who say he must address the unhappiness of English voters. “Labour seems to have been caught like a rabbit in the headlights,” says Ed Jacobs, a pro-Labour political consultant in Leeds.
Cameron won’t change something else that rankles the English: an agreement known as the Barnett formula, which assures Scotland a disproportionate share of the tax revenues collected by the central government. Scotland gets compensation from London for providing public services that previously were the U.K. government’s responsibility. Critics say the compensation is too generous, but before the referendum the three U.K. party leaders pledged not to change it. The 45 percent of Scottish voters who backed independence didn’t get what they wanted. But they may have triggered an English revolution.