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Constitutional asymmetry will have to be addressed

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Scotland’s referendum can only end with one outcome: the Scots will have a form of Home Rule.

Either they are moving towards independence, or they will be given new powers over services, welfare and taxation, which will leave them in an analogous position to, say, an American state. 

Long-evolved British constitutional arrangements, with the pretence that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland occupy broadly similar positions within the United Kingdom cannot continue. The anomalous position of the English, in particular, will be thrown into sharp relief.

England is under-represented at Westminster and has lower per capita public expenditure than any other UK nation. Fifty-nine Scots MPs vote on England-only laws. LGA leaders have complained about the unfair generosity of the funding for the other three UK nations. Some Conservative MPs are agitating for an English Parliament.

Well before the constitutional challenge accidentally unleashed by the referendum, city regions had emerged as a tentative step towards within-England devolution. Last year, the London Finance Commission proposed enhanced fiscal powers for the capital.  

The communities and local government select committee, the City Growth Commission and the IPPR have all recently produced reports arguing for a move towards enhanced city regional powers. 

This week, thinktank ResPublica made the case for devolution to Greater Manchester. Others will soon follow. The political and constitutional reform select committee has launched an inquiry into the future of devolution after the referendum.

It is possible that efforts to sort out the UK constitution will generate proposals to revisit regional devolution within England. However, such a move might delay the implementation of city region policies. 

Indeed, ‘county regions’ or some equivalent structure may have to be developed rapidly if there is to be an England-wide set of institutions to which powers and taxation can be devolved.

The Treasury and spending departments are now under pressure to let go of their tight grip on spending, borrowing and policy. Should they resist, England can have no autonomy to balance the freedoms the Scots will, one way or another, receive.  

If the English are taken for granted during the fall-out from the referendum, its politicians and people will surely revolt. The United Kingdom’s constitutional asymmetry will have to be addressed. 

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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