It has been said that the British constitution is not worth the paper it is not written on. But then, as every American knows, the British don’t have one.
Nevertheless, constitutional issues keep pushing themselves to the fore — the European Union, the role and composition of the House of Lords, and, most recently, the referendum on independence in Scotland, which threatened to break up the country.
In 1998, Britain’s Parliament created devolved bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The devolved bodies, unlike the House of Commons, were to be elected by proportional representation, with the hope that separatists would not be able to win on a minority of the vote. In a four-party system like Scotland’s — with Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists competing — any party could, under the first-past-the-post system, win an overall majority with just one-third of the vote.
In 2011, the Scottish National Party did so — winning an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament with just 44 percent of the vote.
The British government’s response was to provide for a referendum on independence, which was held on Sept. 18. A week before the vote, opinion polls began to show the pro-independence camp slightly in the lead. As London panicked, the three party leaders in Westminster made a “vow” to give the Scots extra powers over taxation and welfare if they rejected independence. The referendum ended with a 55 to 45 percent majority against independence. For the moment the unity of the kingdom is safe and the referendum has solved David Cameron’s Scottish problem. But his Conservatives — and the other parties — now have an English problem.
After all, Mr. Cameron and his Labour and Liberal Democrat colleagues made their “vow” without consulting members of Parliament, 533 of whom, in a house of 650, represent English constituencies.
English M.P.s from the ruling Conservative party declared that they would not support further devolution unless something was done for England, the largest part of the United Kingdom, yet the only part with no devolved body to represent its interests.
But how should the English Question be answered? The logical answer is federalism. But the English have always resisted it. In 2004, voters in the country’s northeast overwhelmingly rejected a proposal for a regional assembly. In England, there is little regional feeling. The regions are ghosts.
The idea of an English parliament has more support. But it would yield a highly unbalanced federation. In the history of democratic federations, no single unit has ever contained 85 percent of the total population. Federations dominated by one unit — as the history of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia shows — do not survive.
Besides, an English parliament and administration located somewhere like Birmingham, would hardly improve the quality of government. As one former British prime minister, John Major, once put it: “If the answer is more politicians, one is asking the wrong question.”
Instead of federalism, the Conservatives propose “English votes for English laws.” This would mean that Scottish M.P.s could no longer vote on bills dealing with education and health in England since education and health in Scotland are now the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament.
This, however, would have serious implications for party politics. The Labour Party dominates Scotland, with 41 seats to just one for the Conservatives, while the Conservatives hold a majority of the seats in England. So, if a Labour government were returned to power with the help of Scottish voters, as could happen next year, there would be a nationwide majority throughout the United Kingdom on matters like foreign affairs and economic policy, and an alternative — English only — majority for education and health. But the British model of government requires a government that is collectively responsible for all matters, not just a selection of them.
There is therefore no logical answer to the English Question unless the English come to embrace federalism. And they are unlikely to do this in the foreseeable future.
An alternative answer is devolution to local government rather than to regions. But the political culture in England is profoundly centralist. The English object to the “postcode lottery,” whereby some areas enjoy better welfare services than others thanks to choices made by different local authorities. That, however, is a logical consequence of decentralization. It is contradictory to support decentralization and oppose a postcode lottery.
In addition, the English blame ministers in London for problems with public services, even when responsibility lies with the local government. When, recently, there were anxieties concerning Islamic infiltration in Birmingham schools, the public blamed the government, not local authorities, even though local authorities run most schools. So, ministers say, if we are held responsible, we must take the powers to match these responsibilities. And that means centralization. As a result, England has become the most centralized country in Europe. And that means the English Question may not be answered for some time.
The Scottish Question, however, is not so much constitutional as social and economic. What the “Yes” voters in Glasgow, who live in safe Labour seats, were seeking was not so much extra powers as recognition by a meritocratic Westminster elite that pays them scant attention. What was so striking about the Scottish outcome is that it was a class vote. Working-class Labour voters in Glasgow voted “Yes.” Scottish National Party voters in middle-class areas voted “No.” The “Yes” voters tended to be those left behind by social and economic change and without higher education — white, working class and semi-skilled or unskilled. They share a social profile with those in England who support Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party.
The meritocratic cleavage, which divides the British elite from UKIP and the Scottish Nationalists, the French elite from the National Front and the Swedish elite from the Swedish Democrats, has become a profound dividing line in much of Europe. It is a particular challenge to a party of the left that seeks to represent the underprivileged but needs the support of the ambitious and aspirational to win elections.
Perhaps, then, the British are not wholly foolish in regarding constitutional issues as less important than social and economic ones. Americans may find this surprising. But they should remember the aphorism of the 19th century prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, that England — perhaps he meant Britain — is governed not by logic but by Parliament.
Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at King’s College, London, and the author of The New British Constitution.