Jim Gallagher reflects on what the Scotland Bill tells us about the Scotland-UK relationship and devolution more broadly. He argues that the Bill presents a challenge to the unwritten constitution, and that now is the time to clarify and codify the territorial aspects to make a statement about how and why the Union hangs together.
The Scotland Bill calls to mind, irresistibly, the aphorism of Lampedusa: if things are to stay the same, they’ve got to change. If it is to sustain itself as a Union, the UK must become a new and different one. The Scotland Bill should be the catalyst for change, but this isn’t only about Scotland. It is about how the UK understands itself as a territorial state. Like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland understand the UK as a voluntary association bound together by common interests and shared experience, in many ways like a federal country. But too many at the centre of the UK see a unitary state with some untidy territorial edges. In essence this understanding is based on a half-baked notion of parliamentary sovereignty. If the UK wants to stay together, this has to change.
The Scotland Bill makes the nature of Scotland-UK relationship more explicit, and implies similar things about Wales and Northern Ireland too. The UK is a multinational state, an association whose membership is voluntary, and that is now very explicit for both Northern Ireland and Scotland. Scotland has always had its own institutions, separate from the UK’s. For first three centuries after the union, these were Scottish, but undemocratic. For the last 15 years, Scottish institutions have been accountable through the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Bill puts it beyond doubt that this is irreversible. Devolution is permanent, and the Scottish Parliament is master in its own house: its power is paramount in devolved matters, and it controls its own composition. That is the point of the constitutional provisions of the Bill: statements of the obvious if you like, but that will be true of many constitutions–if you know how the institutions work in practice, you will find the constitutional legislation almost banal.
Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny outline the government’s detailed proposals for introducing EVEL that were published last Thursday. They argue that, while incremental and modest in some respects, the proposals do raise wider points of constitutional principle which suggest English Votes could be the start rather than the end of a much longer process of finding viable answers to the English Question.
Last week the government published its detailed proposals for introducing English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) into the House of Commons. This is a significant moment in our constitutional history primarily because these changes reflect the acceptance of the need to institutionalise a collective English interest in the legislature, and the conviction that there is a growing and legitimate sense of grievance concerning England’s position within the UK.
The primary rationale offered for introducing EVEL is to bring Westminster up to date with the implications of devolution elsewhere within the UK. In a context where further devolution is anticipated for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is becoming harder to ignore demands that English interests be given greater consideration in parliament. The independent McKay Commission, which was appointed by the Coalition government and reported in March 2013, suggested that there was now a clear imperative for England’s voices to be heard within the post-devolution constitutional settlement. There is significant support for the principle of EVEL: the 2014 Future of England Survey found that 62% of people in England agreed that Scottish MPs should be prevented from voting on England-only legislation. The criticisms that the government’s proposals have so far elicited, reprise a number of standard objections to EVEL. But, while these are far from irrefutable, there is good reason to think that EVEL is unlikely to represent a sufficient answer to the English question.
With the Queen’s Speech due tomorrow, we continue our series of blogs about devolution and its consequences, drawing on the Unit’s latest report Devolution and the Future of the Union. Here Robert Hazell analyses the commitment to English votes on English laws, looking first at its history, and then at its prospects.
Cynics might assume that the Conservative policy of English votes on English laws was an opportunistic slogan designed to garner votes in England, but never intended to be implemented in practice. Some attribute the commitment to David Cameron, who flourished it in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum. But the policy goes back much further than that, having appeared in the last four Conservative manifestos, from 2001 onwards. In the 2015 manifesto it was given added emphasis by being repeated four times, and spelt out in unusual detail in chapter 7.
The details were developed by the outgoing Leader of the House of Commons, William Hague, who chaired a Cabinet Committee which produced a White Paper published last December. It now falls to the new Leader of the House, Chris Grayling, to implement the policy in the new Parliament. What are his objectives; what are the main obstacles to introducing EVEL; and what would be a sensible way forward?
The logic of EVEL
The case for EVEL rests upon principles of fairness and accountability. Now that issues such as education and health are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland assembly, it seems wrong that Scottish and Northern Irish MPs should continue to have a vote on such issues in England, or England and Wales. They have no accountability to the people of England; while the only people to whom they are accountable, their constituents in Scotland and Northern Ireland, are no longer affected by decisions made in relation to England. The conclusion is that English matters should be determined by English MPs alone.
On 14 December Michael Kenny, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, spoke at a Unit seminar on English nationhood and the current debate around the English Question in British politics. Sally Symington reports on the event.
Michael Kenny’s talk ‘Understanding the Resurgence of English National Identity’ placed the current policy debate about the English Question in a wider context and brought to bear some of the values associated with English national sentiment upon some of the proposed solutions. Kenny drew on the results of his research project (sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust) which are detailed in his recent book ‘The Politics of English Nationhood’. The analysis triangulated quantitative polling data and qualitative research regarding the kinds of meaning people attach to their English identity in order to give a deeper and more rounded understanding of the issues. Kenny also discussed the territorial political dynamics which have contributed to the situation whereby the Conservative party makes the idea of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) a salient part of its political and electoral appeal.
Kenny argued that it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, a politicised English nationalism (apparent in attitudes of about 25% of the population) and a much broader and more significant pattern involving shifting forms of national self-awareness. In his opinion, the rise in English national consciousness pre-dates devolution; indeed it can be traced back to the early-mid 1990s and arguably even to the 1930s. The European issue, the bumpy shift to post-industrial economy and debates about the viability of the UK all contributed to growing English consciousness and since 2006-07 have been supplemented by a populist, grievance fuelled notion of a ‘golden-age’ for England. However, Kenny saw the broad consensus of ‘English’ identity break down in London where the prevalence of ethnic minorities results in a much higher rate of self-identification as ‘British’; this is one of the antinomies of England to which Kenny referred in respect of English nationalism.
Robert Hazell writes that if English votes for English laws were introduced, the impact would most likely be limited. He highlights that there are relatively few English laws, and that few votes in the past would have had different outcomes if EVEL had been in place.
The sound and fury generated by the debate on English votes on English laws may tend to exaggerate the likely impact of any change. There are two challenges faced by the Cabinet Committee chaired by William Hague which has been tasked with crafting a worked out policy. The first is devising a solution which is technically feasible; the second, selling that solution as being politically worthwhile. This blog post addresses the second challenge: will English votes on English laws make much difference? This is something to be explored further, when the government’s proposals are announced. The argument made here is that the questions to be asked need to go beyond the technical details, to the likely impact.
There are two reasons why English votes on English laws (EVEL) may make little difference in practice. The first is that there are relatively few English laws. We cannot confidently say how few: one of the disappointments of the McKay report was that it failed to say what proportion of bills (or clauses in bills) would be caught by its proposals. But if Hague were to ask his officials how many bills in the current parliamentary session 2014-15 might count as ‘English laws’, they would answer that there are just two: the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, and the Modern Slavery Bill. The first makes a very minor change to the English law of negligence, the second strengthens the criminal law on human trafficking. There is also one other measure where EVEL might apply: the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure, to allow the appointment of women bishops (see Bob Morris’s recent Constitution Unit post). None of these laws is going to set pulses racing in middle England.
Artemis Photiadou offers an overview of what the three main parties had to say on current constitutional debates at their party conferences last month.
Few party conferences have been held against a more intense constitutional backdrop than this year’s, with the Scottish independence referendum result announced on 19 September, Labour’s conference commencing only two days later, followed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat conferences (and UKIP’s conference from 26 – 27 September).
On devolution and the West Lothian question
With the joint pledge for further devolution made by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to Scottish voters at the eleventh hour serving as the point of departure, the conferences were an opportunity for each party to outline their constitutional direction amid the relief of an unaltered Union.
David Cameron, as well as the other two party leaders, used his speech to confirm that the joint pledge will be honoured. At the same time, however, he also argued that only English MPs should vote on laws that only affect England – the Conservative party’s response to the age-old ‘West Lothian question’. References to the question, and commitments to this solution, have found their way to all three Conservative manifestos since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 so it was perhaps unsurprising. But it was nonetheless presented with renewed purpose: the decision to bring up the matter alongside further devolution served to appease Conservative backbenchers who were not consulted over the joint pledge, and which many found unbalanced, but also as a defence against UKIP.
Bob Morris draws on the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure currently passing through Parliament to consider the viability of English Votes for English Laws.
Yes, from EVEL (i.e. English Votes on English Laws), not evil as in sin.
But, surely, now there is devolution all round except in England, it must be right that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs should not be able to vote in Parliament on matters affecting only England when English MPs cannot vote on issues devolved to the other assemblies. As part of the reaction to the politics of the Scottish referendum, the government is accordingly considering again how EVEL might be encompassed.
England-only laws are relatively rare but one example currently before Parliament – Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure – would permit the appointment of women bishops in the Church of England. There could hardly be a more obvious example of an English law since the Church of England is disestablished in Ireland and Wales and was never established in Scotland. The Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, set up under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, in its 233rd Report on 30 September declared that the relevant Measure was ‘expedient’ and it will come before both Houses accordingly for a final vote.