Sunday, 26 April 2015

English Votes for English Laws

One of the main areas of contention in the General Election campaign thus far has been the issue of English Votes for English Laws, the West Lothian Question, the English Question or any number of the names it goes by.

A brief summary of the West Lothian Question is that our constitution has a strange quirk in it brought about by the devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament, as well as the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, to a lesser extent. The question was originally posed by Sir Tam Dalyell when he was the MP for West Lothian, and has kept his name ever since.

Let's consider Scotland, as this is the most pronounced case. In Scotland, health is a devolved issue - the NHS in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. There are no English MSPs, therefore only representatives of Scottish constituencies can decide on healthcare matters in Scotland.

However, healthcare in England is the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament, which is the Parliament for the whole United Kingdom, not just England. Healthcare policies in England can therefore be determined by Scottish MPs, even though healthcare policy in Scotland cannot be determined by representatives of English constituencies.

This, in effect, gives Scotland some authority over policy in England, whereas England has no such authority over the same policy in Scotland.

Various solutions have been proposed to solve this problem, including:
  • An English Parliament with equivalent devolution to the Scottish Parliament, although this doesn't appear to have gained a huge amount of traction with English voters;
  • English devolution along regional lines, although this was comprehensively rejected by the electorate during Labour's time in office;
  • Limiting votes in the Westminster Parliament on England-only matters to MPs representing English constituents (English Votes for English Laws, or EVEL).

Reasons opposing any changes to this constitutional anomaly are:
  • Scottish votes don't tend to make that much difference. There are about 60 Scottish constituencies for the House of Commons, compared to over 500 English ones. There are very few votes where Scottish ballots have made a material difference to the outcome;
  • The policy areas devolved to the Scottish Parliament are relatively few, therefore limiting the number of votes affected by the West Lothian Question anyway. Furthermore, many Scottish MPs abstain on issues which only affect England anyway;
  • A separate English Parliament would effectively create a federal United Kingdom, which would likely be dysfunctional as England is massive in terms of population, economy and wealth compared to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland;
  • Segmentation of England into regions would make a federal UK easier to govern, but the English have historically reacted badly to attempts to partition them. This concept has already been put to three referenda in the last 30 years, all of which were rejected;
  • EVEL risks creating two classes of MP at Westminster, with English MPs being able to vote on everything and Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs being sent home on certain days. A government with a UK majority, but not an English one, would find it almost impossible to govern.

It is true that Scottish votes don't make much of a difference, but with a raft of further devolutionary powers being handed to the Scottish Parliament in the aftermath of the failed independence referendum, the number of votes affected by the West Lothian Question is set to increase significantly.

With the prospect of a hung parliament or a very narrow Labour majority, it is quite possible that an incoming government would be forced to rely on Scottish votes to pass bills. The SNP have made much of this fact, effectively abandoning its abstentionist position and threatening to bring down a Labour minority government if they don't tow the line. It could put the UK in a situation whereby a UK government, at the behest of the SNP, increases Income Tax in England in order to increase public spending only benefiting Scotland. This was previously virtually impossible, but due to the further devolutionary changes and a revised political landscape, it is now much more likely.

Because of this, parties with a large number of English constituents have become more aware of this as an issue, and are proposing some constitutional amendments to redress the balance. Many Scottish MPs and MSPs have reacted angrily, implying that even broaching the matter is stirring up English nationalism and inciting racism and xenophobia. It has been argued by some that, as Scotland has had to put up with governments put into office by English voters for years, it's only fair that England should have to put up with one put into office by Scottish voters. I think both of these charges are utter nonsense.

During the referendum campaign, many advocates of Scottish independence argued consistently that it was immoral for a party which had only one MP in Scotland (i.e. the Tories) to be able to pass vast swathes of law over its population. I'm inclined to agree - which is why I was, and continue to be, in favour of further devolution to Scotland. I don't think they should leave the UK, but I think it's fair that they should have more autonomy within the union.

However, if a party with only one MP in Scotland passing laws there is immoral, then what is moral about a party with NO MPs in England passing laws there? The SNP will not elect a single MP in an English constituency. They are not even fielding a single candidate in an English constituency. At least the Tories put forward candidates in Scotland. They are more democratically engaged in Scotland than the SNP are in England. The Tories' right govern in Scotland is questionable - the SNP's right to govern in England is unthinkable.

In terms of stirring up English nationalism and xenophobia, that is the most pathetic excuse I have ever heard for avoiding an important constitutional debate. Sure, some English people are racist. Some Scottish people are, too. Just being English doesn't automatically make you a closet bigot, and wanting a fair constitutional settlement between England and Scotland doesn't make you anti-Scottish. Furthermore, it seemed to suit politicians' needs to stir up Scottish nationalism during the referendum campaign, with various factions trying to claim that they were more Scottish than their adversaries, laying out claims to various patriotic instincts.

A lot of people find any expression of English nationalism to be distasteful - they think it has imperial and/or hooliganistic connotations. Scottish nationalism is perfectly acceptable, though - and Welsh, and Northern Irish. Having a love of the country you were born in and were raised in, celebrating its culture, its silly pastimes and quirks, its oh-so-close history in sport, does not automatically make you an imperialist or a hooligan, even if that country is England.

As it happens, I tend to agree that a separate English Parliament wouldn't work - England carries so much clout compared to the rest of the union that all this would do is:
  • Render the Westminster Parliament irrelevant, which would be a shame as historically of course, the Westminster Parliament IS the English Parliament;
  • Effectively weaken the devolutionary powers of the other Parliaments and Assemblies, as laws passed in England are likely to have a knock-on effect in the other home nations;
  • Create a skewed union too overly dominated by England, which would foster resentment and probably lead to the eventual dissolution of the United Kingdom.

Although a regionalised England would make for a far less skewed union, the English haven't really taken to the idea. There isn't a real push for regional autonomy - three referenda were held on the concept in the North of England during Labour's last tenure, and it was comprehensively rejected each time.

The best solution would be English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). I think the two classes of MPs it would create at Westminster is appropriate - England would have more say at Westminster, but would have no say at Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont. There should be a clear separation of powers between the whole House of Commons and an Grand Committee of England drawn from the House.

This could theoretically give rise to a situation where, for example, Labour won a majority in the House of Commons, but not in the Grand Committee. I don't see this as a problem - the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a majority in the House of Commons in 2010, the SNP formed a majority in Holyrood in 2011. The world did not end. If Labour won a majority overall, then they could push through their manifesto on non-devolved issues - defence, foreign policy etc. It just means that, when it comes to healthcare and education, they'd have to co-operate with the Tories. If they don't like it, they could always try to win more seats in England next time. THAT'S democracy.