“Thursday’s election will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup”

Alan Trench assesses devolution commitments in the party manifestos and argues that pro-UK and nationalist parties alike display a lack of coherence and consistency. The SNP and Plaid Cymru seem to have conflicting demands, while the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems fail to take an overarching view of the implications of their proposals for each part of the UK on the others. It is however clear that the outcome of Thursday’s election will have major implications for the structure of the country.

It is hard to think of a general election that has ever been so freighted with questions about the UK’s territorial constitution. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the outcome of the 2015 election, and actions of the government that takes office after it, will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup. This post considers what the manifestos tell us about what the various parties propose to do and how they propose to do it, when it comes to the reshaping of devolution arrangements across the UK, and then discusses some of the issues that will loom larger after 7 May.

The pro-UK parties

The 2015 manifestos contain a welter of devolution-related commitments. Those in the three pro-UK parties (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) are all strikingly similar, though not identical. For Scotland, all commit to implementing the Smith Commission’s recommendations, and to retaining the Barnett formula. (Interestingly, they do not commit to the UK Government’s white paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, raising the possibility they could scrape off some of the barnacles that paper puts on the Smith proposals). Labour want to go further in a ‘Home Rule bill’ in unspecified ways, though it appears that wider scope for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on welfare matters is key to it. These commitments rather resemble those made by the same three parties in 2010 about the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations, though with Labour somewhat breaking ranks with the two governing parties.

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If the debates do not go ahead, it will be the fault of self-interest on the part of the main parties and the broadcasters

Nicholas Allen

Whether there will be debates this year in advance of the 2015 General Election is open to question, with partisan and corporate self-interest threatening to overwhelm the process by which inclusion in the debate is governed. Nicholas Allen argues that this brinksmanship threatens the debates taking place not only in a satisfactory manner, but going ahead at all. 

The negotiations between the broadcasters and the political parties to stage televised leaders’ debates in 2015 have entered a new stage of brinkmanship. The current round of bluff and counter bluff was triggered in early January by Ofcom’s interim decision not to include the Green Party (including the Scottish Green Party) in its list of Britain-wide major political parties. This decision greatly weakened the party’s claim to be included in at least one of the proposed debates.

In response, David Cameron upped the stakes by publicly refusing to participate unless the Green leader Natalie Bennett was allowed to do so as well. And in response to Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have now joined forces and called for the debates to take place anyway and for an ‘empty podium’ in Cameron’s place if he chooses not to participate. Inevitably, the political parties claim to be acting in the public interest, so too the broadcasters. Equally inevitably, all the interested parties are acting in their own interests.

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English votes on English laws: much ado about nothing?

robert_hazell (1)

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.

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Party conferences and the constitution

­­­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.

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