House of Commons (Reserved Matters)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:33 pm on 28 June 2000.

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Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon 4:33, 28 June 2000

I beg to oppose the Bill. The proposal of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is beguiling, even seductive. There is an implacable logic to his analysis.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to imply that, in their haste to head off, contain and discipline Scottish and Welsh nationalism, the Government have left unaddressed the question of the position of England. Given the existence of a Scottish Parliament, he is right that the position of Scottish MPs in the House is anomalous and, to some people, perhaps even provocative. He is right to accept that, just because a majority is, in general, tolerant and at ease with itself and its identity, its own rights should not be left unattended.

However, he is wrong in his prescription. He is wrong because his proposals would create two Parliaments within the one body—Parliaments with different majorities, different ambitions and competing and contested legitimacies. The proposal would create an English Parliament—a haphazard, accidental creation within the body of the UK Parliament.

There may be a case for an English Parliament, although I am not sure that I share the Arthurian reveries of some of the people who regularly gather to display the flag of St. George at the approach to this place. If there is to be an English Parliament, it must be a deliberately created one—apart and separate from this House; it must have an undisputed legitimacy so that this place is uncompromised as the forum for debating the British interest. The Parliament itself must be the creation of deliberate policy, not of procedural accident.

Create an English Parliament if you want one, Madam Speaker, and, if you like, put it in Winchester. Even better, put it in York. If you like, dare I say it, put it in Liverpool. But do not demean, denature and destroy this place by imposing on it an institutional schizophrenia. However much we pretend otherwise, we would also be creating an English Government—a sort of bastard Government not born in its own right.

Let us imagine a situation which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned, where the withdrawal of Scottish MPs left a majority on English matters in the House different from that of the UK Government. One would then, necessarily, end up with a Government elected on a manifesto significant parts of which they could not deliver, and a competing Administration, unable to deliver their manifesto because they would not command the business of the House, and would therefore depend on the opportunistic hijacking of Government proposals.

The most persuasive claim made in support of our system of elections is that it delivers firm government. The proposal in the Bill to graft an English Parliament on to a UK Parliament with competing aims, programmes and majorities would spell incoherence at best and, literally, incompetence at worst. If we want an English Government, let us have a genuinely federal system, with four national Parliaments and Administrations, together with a UK-wide Parliament for non-devolved matters—not the disfigurement of this Parliament and the deliberate disabling of its Government.

I am English—according to my French wife, very English. I feel comfortable in my skin; I do not feel threatened, and although I might grumble about such things as per capita spending in Scotland when compared with that in England, I do not feel abused by the differential. I do think that we should beware of the dangers of the aggressive assertion of the English interest expressed as a political mechanism.

We English are not a minority in these islands; we do not have an identity to prove or a history to rescue. When a federation exists in which there is a massive disequilibrium between the size and weight of one of its components and the others, there is a particular responsibility on the dominant partner to behave with restraint.

I do not believe that the Union is at risk from Scottish nationalism if that nationalism is left to sustain its own momentum and renew its own energy, if it can; but give it the adrenalin of an assertive English nationalism against which to identify itself, and I do fear that we shall be providing the weapon for an assault on the integrity of the Union.

The politicisation of English nationalism will risk making the disequilibrium at the heart of our federation of UK nations, which devolution, however clumsily and self-interestedly, has sought to address, unsustainable. We do need to reflect on the nature of the Anglo-Scottish relationship, about which, to be honest, I am not even remotely sentimental. We have already, through devolution, created structures that need to negotiate with one another to co-exist—resulting in the plethora of concordats that lie at the heart of the relationship between the different parts of the United Kingdom. If we exclude Scottish MPs from our deliberations on purely English affairs—assuming that those can be isolated and defined, which I doubt—we go one stage further in putting intergovernmental relations at the heart of British governance. We shall appropriate the idea that the UK is made up of foreign countries. Worse, we could let loose forces which, if ruthlessly exploited, could makes us strangers to ourselves.