An Unseemly Haste Behind 'English Votes for English Laws' Suggests Hidden Political Motives
According to Phrygian legend, a farmer called Gorgias drove his ox-cart into the great city of Gordium and, because of a prophecy, was declared king. His successor Midas honoured his father by dedicating his cart to the god Sabazios and tied it with cornel bark to a tree in the palace. There it stood for centuries, its intricate knot defying any man’s (because they were all men then) ability to untie it.
In 1977, in a debate about Welsh and Scottish devolution, the Labour MP for West Lothian Tam Dalyell did something similar. He posed a question: “For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable Members tolerate ... 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?” A simple, elegant and knotty question about the consequences on the Westminster parliament of asymmetric devolution: named - by Enoch Powell - the West Lothian Question, it is the Gordian Knot of British politics.
Like the mythical knot, for years the best and easiest solution to the question has been to ignore it. After they devolved power to Wales and Scotland (and then to Northern Ireland) Labour did little to redress the balance. The West Lothian question remained not merely unanswered but unasked.
The independence referendum, devo max and the Conservatives surprising majority changed that. For the first time there is an answer to the “English Question” being proposed: it is called English Votes for English Laws (EVEL).
to disallow non-English MPs from voting on these issues is a logical and simple response. Maybe. But massively flawedBecause England’s political size would make a parliament impractical and confusing, EVEL is the nearest alternative. The House of Commons is composed of MPs from all constituent parts of the United Kingdom, but certain matters, such as health and education, have been devolved to assemblies upon which English MPs in the House of Commons have no vote; conversely English health and education remain the prerogative all UK MPs. Therefore to disallow non-English MPs from voting on these issues is a logical and simple response. Maybe. But massively flawed.
What is “English legislation”? How much English-only law actually impacts on the devolved nations and regions of the United Kingdom? By putting the power to decide on the Speaker does EVEL further politicise the office? Are we prepared to have an argument every time legislation has even a tangential impact outside England?
What is currently before parliament is one of the many variants on EVEL: the government will give an effective veto on English-only legislation to English MPs while proposing a whole new structure to allow English MPs to ‘consent’ to parts of UK-wide bills with provisions that relate to England only, with a “double majority” of English and UK MPs on Lords amendments. It is messy. It is complicated. It is convoluted. But also incredibly timid. It is like a magician’s deceptive spiel: there is a difference between what is said and what will actually happen. The McKay Commission, which reported in 2013, proposed a “double-count” EVEL to make it politically difficult, but not impossible, for non-English MPs to block so-called English legislation; the risk there was that a constitutional convention developed with the equality of MPs becoming merely theoretical. The reality of the government's plans is that the inequality is not theoretical.
EVEL allows complications where there need not be complications
‘English Votes for English Laws’ is, of course, a misnomer. The same points apply to bills and provisions that affect both England and Wales. Furthermore, the government is wilfully ignoring that the Commons serves two purposes: as a legislature and the determinator for our executive. By not addressing the anomaly whereby the majority party in Westminster forms both the UK government and the English government, EVEL allows complications where there need not be complications. This continuing double function is a potential cause of massive tension and confusion. A UK government may not have an English majority to govern for its largest entity; certain elected MPs may not be able to serve in “English” offices.
Devolution was conceived to end the dominance of English MPs. EVEL reasserts this. There is something so unseemly in the haste with which the government is moving that it is difficult to argue against criticism that there is a political motivation from an English-centric party. In attempting to correct an imbalance, they are in danger of creating a grievance that can be exploited or pointed out, depending on your point of view. This should worry unionists and diehard nationalists alike: political realities change, geography does not.
Many centuries after it had been tied, Alexander the Great solved the problem of the Gordian knot. Ancient sources dispute exactly how he did this but there is something Alexandrian to the government’s EVEL proposals. By slashing through the knot with his sword the Macedonian king freed the ox-cart but he did not actually untie the knot. It was a crude but imaginative solution. EVEL is equally unsophisticated but has all the imagination of a Justin Bieber lyric. We are far too centralised as a state. The NHS creeks under the burden of a top-down administration. Free schools and academies, accountable to Whitehall rather than Local Education Authorities, are currently more centralised than their predecessors. People across the country too often have to look to beyond their local areas for answers. Westminster has become a dirty word. There is a problem.
Forget conventions and constitutional yawnfests. What is the answer to the problems of asymmetrical devolution? Symmetrical devolution.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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