Devolution is about devolving power. There’s a clue in the name.
Which is why talk of English devolution that slips into talking about English MPs voting on English laws misses what English devolution should really be about. Not about a smaller number of MPs keeping power still to themselves, but about devolving power away from MPs downwards to local government (and possibly regional government, though the appetite for creating a new layer of government across England is fairly limited – better to look to soup up existing local levels rather than create new ones).
Meaningful English devolution isn’t about which MPs get to vote on what in Westminster. It’s about what councillors, Mayors and London Assembly members get to decide in future that MPs currently control.
Which is why Nick Clegg is spot on to write today that:
We need action on three fronts.
First, delivering the devolution that has been promised to Scotland. No ifs, no buts. The package of reforms myself, Ed Miliband and David Cameron all committed to must be delivered on time and cannot be made contingent on other constitutional reforms, even as we pursue agreement on them in parallel.
We must deliver further powers for Wales as recommended by the Silk Commission while strengthening devolution in Northern Ireland too. And, on the divisive issue of English votes for English matters, we must start with the work of Sir William McKay, who has already done a lot of the heavy lifting after the Coalition asked him to look at this. Sir McKay suggested a number of ways of giving English MPs a special right to vet legislation where it only affects England, bringing in Welsh MPs where appropriate, in a way which avoids fragmenting the Commons.
Second, we need a much more radical dispersal of power within England.
In Coalition I have been determined that – against all of the instincts of central government – we hand back an array of powers to Britain’s communities and cities. But we need to turn this relationship fundamentally on its head. Currently the best local councils can hope for is to be granted new powers when the government of the day deigns to do so. Instead we must guarantee a new, legal right for local authorities to demand powers – decentralisation on demand if you like – with central government having to meet a much higher threshold before it can refuse.
My aim is a statutory presumption in favour of the decentralisation of powers away from Whitehall. I see no reason why we cannot publish draft clauses for this early next year alongside our other pressing reforms.
Finally, as we move towards a more federal system we will need to codify the division of labour between Westminster and the constituent parts of the UK and set out a clear statement of the values we all share. In short, what amounts to a written constitution.
I welcome Labour’s decision to embrace the longstanding Liberal Democrat call for a constitutional convention – but it needs a precise mandate, beginning next year and concluding in 2017. It should have a Citizen’s Jury at its heart, representing every corner of the UK. One area it will need to address is the future of the House of Lords which, in my view, would better serve people as an elected second chamber, in keeping with federal political systems across the world. Ultimately, however, it will not be up to politicians – this process will be led by the people.
You can read his piece in full here.