It would in fact be Cameron’s constitutional turkey.
It would in fact be Cameron’s constitutional turkey
As Christmas draws nearer so too does the unveiling of the government’s proposals for English votes for English laws. Against the backdrop of the Scottish independence referendum and the rise of UKIP in England, the prime minister sees this as his opportunity to square the circle and give his Conservative colleagues an early present.
Despite the so-called West Lothian question having first been articulated in 1977 and no solution having been found to date, David Cameron thinks he can find one by end of this parliamentary term.
But as the respected constitutional expert – and Cameron’s former Oxford tutor – Vernon Bogdanor has said, ‘a constitution is for life not just for Christmas’.
Indeed, politicians and commentators alike have said that English votes for English laws will mask rather than resolve current constitutional concerns. Following three tumultuous years of talk of Scottish separation, Cameron’s proposals threaten to destabilise the British constitution and the United Kingdom itself.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that English voters are angered by what they perceive as more generous social policies north of the border – the removal of higher education tuition fees, prescription charges and free personal care for the elderly – funded by taxes raised in England.
However these voices seldom mention the massive cuts to college funding, the absence of a cancer drugs fund and the postcode lottery that exists for care in Scotland.
The reality, then, is that devolution, by definition, gives the devolved administrations choice over their policy priorities – while financial arrangements remain a separate and distinct issue.
The Scottish electorate rejected independence at the ballot box and as a result the cross-party Smith Commission has agreed a series of further powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The constitution of the ‘union state’ is shifting, but – as before – commonality and difference have been respected.
But Cameron’s plan to pursue English votes for English laws does not respect the differences between the nations as it will exclude the representatives of some nations from the institution that binds the UK together. At the same time, the debate surrounding it will distract from the real challenge of decentralising power from London to the nations of the UK and the regions of England.
Scotland has been on along devolutionary journey: not only three years of its citizens actively engaging in the independence referendum debate, culminating in a record turnout of 84.5 per cent; nor fifteen years of devolved government; but 300 years of self-administration and a distinct political culture including civic society.
Cameron’s shotgun plans, in contrast, were drawn up during a brainstorm amongst elites at Chequers and are to be discussed by a Cabinet Committee in Whitehall. Labour is the party of devolution and it is right that Ed Miliband has refused to join the Committee.
Creating an English Parliament, or introducing English votes for English laws which is much the same thing, would not deliver devolution for England. Power would continue to be centralised in Westminster and Whitehall.
Indeed, that is why Labour has called for the devolution of economic powers to the cities and regions of England.
A Parliament within a Parliament can also not work in practice. The McKay Commission, which considered the West Lothian Question for the current government, proposed that English laws be considered by a Grand Committee consisting of English MPs. This would mean, however, that policy choices with revenue-raising implications are separated from control over taxation which could lead to political deadlock.
Moreover, if Scottish MPs are to be excluded, so too would Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, as well as those from London, depending upon what was being debated which would lead to a situation described as ‘legislative hokey cokey’.
As many have said, it is also simply not possible to identify legislation that only affects England: funding for the devolved administrations is calculated as a proportion of UK spending and so MPs from outside England retain an implicit interest in the policy choices of the UK government. This is why the SNP’s position to not vote on ‘English laws’ at present is misguided and misleading.
In any case, MPs representing English constituencies have always been able to outvote those representing elsewhere: of 650 MPs Scotland only has 59, for example. Speaking in a House of Commons debate on this issue, Gordon Brown noted that England contains 84 per cent of the UK population, Scotland 8 per cent, Wales 5 per cent and Northern Ireland 3 per cent; also that the smaller nations of the UK need to be represented at the political centre to ensure that their rights are respected:
“If that is not recognised by this government today in this House, it is recognised in America where the rules of the Senate mean that Wyoming—a minority part of the country—with half a million people has two Members of the Senate, as does California with 38 million people. It is also recognised in Australia where Tasmania with 700,000 people and New South Wales with 7 million people have 12 members each in the Senate. It is recognised in the constitutions of Spain, Switzerland, South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria and Mexico.
Without a proper constitutional convention, involving politicians and the public alike, as proposed by Miliband, there can be no effective solution to the West Lothian Question.
A convention would undoubtedly be a complicated process, but it is necessary if we are to reconcile the differences left by asymmetric devolution.
In the meantime, it is right that the promises made to the electorate in Scotland are delivered. Rather than trying to reduce the status of Scottish MPs, the government should be building on Scotland’s experience of energising the electorate to build British solidarity.
As the referendum campaign illustrated, we need to speak more about the positive benefits of our ‘union state’ whilst also delivering devolution across the country which respects the history and aspirations of each of the nations and regions. English votes for English laws will do neither, and that is why it is Cameron’s constitutional turkey.
Dan Sharp is a Labour Party member and works for a researcher for a Labour MP
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