Devolution in the UK: the growth of the English variant

John Denham discusses how England is becoming more centralised by a Prime Minister keen on ‘unfettered leadership’, arguing that the model of elected mayors is losing its attraction to central government. This extension of the powers of the Union state over England might well be described as the ‘English variant’. It faces unique and significant policy and political challenges.

In the early months of 2020, there seemed to be a sharp contrast between Conservative policy towards the governance of England and its approach to the devolved nations. Its 2019 manifesto had promised ‘full devolution across England so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny’. Across the Union the government was already setting out its intention to intervene more directly in the affairs of the devolved nations. This so-called ‘assertive unionism’ – an attempt to refashion some form of more unitary UK state – had been foreshadowed when Boris Johnson had declared his intention to be Minister for the Union and in an influential report by Policy Exchange.

The commitment to publish a Devolution and Recovery White Paper for England was set out in July 2020 (in a speech by then local government minister Simon Clarke which has now been removed from government websites). But by the turn of 2021, in the wake of a bruising confrontation with Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham, it was clear that ministers were losing interest in English devolution. The Devolution White Paper has been dropped, to be replaced by a ‘Levelling-Up’ White Paper. There is little detail on the new approach, but all the signs are that it will bring an intensification of centralisation that will extend the powers of Whitehall rather than localities. The funds intended to drive ‘levelling up’ have either been centralised at an England level, as with the English Towns Fund, or as part of UK wide funding programmes for ‘Shared Prosperity’ and ‘Community Renewal’ funds.

The early sharp contrast between Conservative plans for England and for the rest of the Union are now being replaced by something that looks much more consistent. Instead of a fundamentally different approach to English governance, England is becoming more, rather than less, centralised and, in many cases, integrated into Union-wide investment programmes. This extension of the powers of the Union state over England might well be described as the ‘English variant’. It has features that are unique to England, but at its core is the same idea of the centralised Union state.

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Deliver us from EVEL? Is the government right to abolish ‘English Votes for English Laws’?

Following reports that the UK government is considering abolishing the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ procedures in the House of Commons, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny argue that, although EVEL has some flaws as a solution to the ‘West Lothian Question’, abandoning it will also leave open bigger questions about how England should be represented within British parliamentary government.

According to a recent report in The Times, the UK government is preparing to abolish the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ standing orders in the House of Commons. This suggested that ministers have already been consulted on the move and look set to lend it support. The change would also need to be approved by MPs, but only a single vote in the Commons would be needed to make this important constitutional change.

That such a move is being considered by the current government is surprising and unexpected in equal measure. Proposals for various forms of EVEL, as an answer to the infamous ‘West Lothian Question’, have been championed by the Conservative Party ever since the advent of Scottish and Welsh devolution in the late 1990s, and have featured in every one of its general election manifestos between 2001 and 2015. Despite agreeing to an independent commission, the Liberal Democrats ultimately blocked this reform during the period of coalition government. It was only in October 2015, once the Conservatives held power alone, that the change was implemented. Few would have expected that a government with such a strong focus upon English voters outside large urban areas would seek to repeal it.

One part of the explanation for this may be an increased willingness of the current Conservative government to disown elements of the Cameron legacy. But it also reflects the influence of a rising current of ‘neo-unionist’ sentiment within the party, which believes that the imperative to secure Scottish consent, in the wake of growing support for a second independence referendum, is more important than English grumbles about the West Lothian anomaly. This is perhaps ironic, since EVEL was envisaged by its architects as a means of assuaging discontent with the Union, by protecting against a situation in which MPs from outside England’s borders could make the difference on England-only legislative decisions.

What is also notable about the idea of repealing EVEL is that little sense of how it has operated has informed this declaration of intent.

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Devolution and the Union: then and now

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the flaws of the UK’s uneven devolution arrangements, and the mixed success of intergovernmental forums. Charlotte Kincaid summarises discussions from a Unit webinar in which four experts from across the UK tracked the country’s bumpy journey of devolution, and where it might go in the future. The webinar was the final instalment of the Unit’s series of celebrations to mark its 25th anniversary.

The details and arrangements of devolution have been played out in the public sphere while the UK has attempted to grapple with a pandemic. The public has seen devolution very much in action, with each part of the UK implementing its own lockdown measures and support packages, demonstrating the autonomy and limitations of devolved governments. With devolution in the forefront of the public mind, it was the opportune moment to discuss the journey so far, and where devolution is headed. The summaries below are presented in the order of the speaker’s contributions.

Scotland

Michael Keating, Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and former Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change, described Scottish devolution as an ambivalent project, and noted that there have always been different understandings of what devolution means. For some, it is a modification of the unitary state of the UK, for others the UK is a union of self-governing nations which come together for common purposes, while another group view it as a project in the direction of federalisation. In recent years these foundational issues have grown in relevance due to a number of constitutional confrontations. 

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Five years of ‘EVEL’

In the wake of the devolution settlements of the Blair years, political pressure to answer the ‘West Lothian Question’ persisted. In 2015, the proposed answer was ‘English Votes for English Laws (or EVEL). Today, on its fifth anniversary, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny assess how EVEL has worked, during one of the most volatile political periods in living memory.

On 23rd October 2015, the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) procedures came into force in the House of Commons. Introduced by David Cameron in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, these new rules were designed as an answer to the notorious ‘West Lothian Question’ – the late Tam Dalyell’s resonant enquiry about why Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should continue to be able to vote on matters that only affected England after devolution, while MPs in England were not able to reciprocate in devolved areas.

When EVEL was introduced, the procedures were sharply criticised by opponents. For some, the reform would not only be logistically difficult to implement – likely to be ‘incomprehensible’ to MPs and the public alike – but would also threaten the UK’s constitutional makeup. In particular, it was argued that EVEL would establish ‘two classes of MP’ at Westminster, undermining the ability of non-English MPs to represent their constituents’ interests. Others, meanwhile, criticised the procedures as too tame, and falling short of providing adequate representation to England.

The five-year anniversary provides an opportune moment to review how this contentious reform has fared in practice. Yet the wider territorial politics of the UK have also undergone significant changes in the intervening period. The questions to which these complicated rules were a response have become ever more pressing, but whether EVEL can provide a sustainable response to the increasingly fraught question of English devolution is increasingly doubtful.

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Moving Westminster into a multi-parliament world: the Commons takes a fresh look at devolution

The UK’s devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales celebrated their twenty-first anniversary this year. Their powers have changed several times since their creation, but much of this has occurred in an ad hoc way, without deep consideration at UK level of the overall devolution framework. Paul Evans explains how a new Procedure Committee inquiry into how the House of Commons should adapt to the ‘territorial constitution’ presents an opportunity to give some key devolution issues the attention they deserve.

Devolution in the UK turned 21 this year, and watching it grow has been a fascinating study in making up the constitution as you go along. The Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017 (each of them the third major reworkings of the statutory basis of devolution in those nations in less than 20 years) declared the devolved legislatures there, along with their governments, to be a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which could be abolished only with the consent of the people in a referendum. 

In both those nations 16- and 17-year olds have been newly enfranchised and will participate in the elections of their parliaments next year. The Northern Ireland Assembly restarted (once more) in January after a three-year absence, and in May the Welsh Assembly renamed itself the Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru if you prefer to use the UK’s – so far – only other official language). 

All in all, the journey towards a pragmatic form of de facto federalism in the UK has been a remarkably peaceful and generally good-natured velvet revolution. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the House of Commons Procedure Committee has not felt the need to have a major review of the implications of devolution for the workings of the Commons since 1999.

Watching its progeny develop their own values and make their own decisions has, nonetheless, been a challenging learning experience for Westminster. The assertions of devolution’s permanency and its implication of equality of esteem between the four legislatures of the UK has often appeared more rhetorical than real. Whitehall seems never to have fully come to terms with the loss of centralised control which devolution necessarily entails. But, collectively, the elected members of the four legislatures have done little better in opening up and sustaining channels of communication – though some good work has been done at the margins. 

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