WHO speaks for England? This question will loom ever larger as the UK Parliament has another go at settling the Kingdom following the Scottish referendum.
Like many loyal supporters of our country, I hope and expect that the Scots will vote to stay in the UK. I accept the need to ask them, and agree it is their right to make up their minds whether they wish to stay or not.
The last thing we want in a democratic union of peoples is an unwilling country desperate to get out, or wanting a new settlement of its position.
As part of winning that referendum, the three main parties at Westminster have all pledged to devolve more powers to the Scottish Parliament if there is a ‘No’ vote to independence. That’s fine, as long as more politicians see that means we also need to tackle the problem of England at the same time.
Whatever the vote in Scotland, both sides need to affirm they will honour the result and not seek to change it again for a long time. We could do with a period of constitutional stability internally after the vote and its consequences.
When I have stated in the Commons that I have to accept that 50 per cent plus one vote would be enough to trigger independence as far as I am concerned, Scottish nationalists have agreed that the same applies if people vote to preserve the UK.
Let us hope the margin is larger to make the result more decisive. We will then need to go on and sort out the UK’s relationship with the EU.
The country I was born into after the Second World War confused England and the UK in much of England. Many people were casual about saying who they were – they might say British, they might say English. They thought these identities interchangeable. Many English people regarded the Union flag as their flag, and had no knowledge of the cross of St George. We were English when it came to supporting football or rugby teams, wider than England when supporting the English cricket team with its occasional Welsh players, and UK citizens when supporting teams at the Olympics or the international tennis cup. The way some English confused England and the UK was an irritant to many from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. It helped fuel the mood for devolution.
Today we have a situation where Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have powers of government devolved to them. They have First Ministers and devolved Parliaments and Assemblies.
England has nothing. More English people dislike the settlement given to them, where we have different arrangements on university fees and long-term care from Scotland. The Scottish debate on independence is awakening more thoughts of some independence for England too.
Labour, who invented this lop-sided devolution, thought they could create elected regional assemblies in England which would have some of the powers devolved to the other parts of the UK. They sought the views of the electorate in the North East, where they thought enthusiasm would be strongest and where Labour traditionally has a majority of the vote, only to lose the referendum.
People in England do not wish to see their country Balkanised. We do not want it split up into Euro regions. We dislike the way the EU has erased England from their maps. My constituents in Wokingham, Berkshire, do not have a sense of identity with the South East. The kingdom of Wessex has long since disappeared. Yorkshire people are from Yorkshire and England, not some wider northern region. We are all English.
If we give devolved tax powers to Scotland after the referendum, it will bring the issue of England to the fore. English people will not readily accept Scottish MPs at Westminster helping create a majority for a tax on England which Scottish people do not have to pay.
Some English people want a replica of the Scottish Parliament, a new English Parliament with extra politicians and a new building. To me the Westminster Parliament is England’s Parliament as well as the Parliament of the Union. I think we MPs, from England, could do both jobs. We could meet to settle the affairs of England for some of the time, and to settle the affairs of the Union with our colleagues from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales the rest of the time.
What is increasingly clear is English people will want their identity and right to self-government recognised when Scotland gains new tax powers for Edinburgh.