Could English Devolution save the UK?

Given it is hard to roll back the tide of devolution in the UK, creating an equitable devolution settlement for the UK may well help preserve the Union in the whole of the UK, not just offer fairness to England.

Could English Devolution save the UK?

On the 11th of February, the Commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police Service resigned, she claimed her hands were tied as the Mayor of London no longer had confidence in her. Far from this story just being about the police force in London, this has significant national implications.

The Metropolitan Police plays a critical role in national policing, including heading up a number of counter-terrorism functions. Unlike other English and Welsh police forces, Section 99 of the Police Act 1996 even grants Metropolitan Police officers jurisdiction in Scotland and Northern Ireland when designated to protect people or property there. Despite the creation of a National Crime Agency in 2013, these responsibilities remain with London’s police force. Furthermore; despite the National Crime Agency commonly being referred to as “Britain’s FBI” in the media, their officers face different limitations on their powers depending on which part of the United Kingdom they are in and face requirements to follow orders from Scottish Government officials when exercising powers in Scotland (Schedule 5 Part 4 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013).

This is just one example of how unnecessarily complex the UK’s devolved constitutional settlement has become. This constitutional settlement raises a profound and serious question: how can citizens make informed decisions about their politics if it is unclear which Government is responsible for the decisions in an area of public policy?

This is however further complicated by the fact that the UK Government also serves as the English Government. Whilst metro-mayors have allowed for some quasi-devolution in limited parts of England, the only Parliament that legislates for England is the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

For example; in England and Wales, large shops can only open for 6 hours on Sunday. In Scotland, this restriction does not exist (albeit, Scottish employees do also have the right to refuse work on Sunday). In 2016, despite a majority of England and Welsh MPs supporting piloting reforms of Sunday trading laws in England and Wales, Scottish SNP MPs were able to block the move.

However, the case for further devolution in England is not just about granting equity to English democracy, it is also about allowing for effective democratic decision making in devolved parts of the UK. When a minister of the UK Government speaks in public, how is a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish citizen to know what applies to them (instead of just England)?

This lack of visibility as to the proper role of the UK Government in devolved regions means citizens will likely struggle to attribute success and failure to the correct government. It may well simply not be feasible for a Prime Minister to both concurrently and separately address the whole of the United Kingdom and the English population.

The current devolution settlement faces issues that would simply not exist in a completely unitary state or a fully federalised country. These problems make the current devolution settlement uniquely challenged. This in turn could be a major factor in the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Given it is hard to imagine that the pandora's box of devolution can now be closed, the only option to save the British state from a breakup may well be to continue with devolution until the people of England are represented in the same way as those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.