It’s hard to take Tory assurances – or SNP outrage – at face value after the Prime Minister’s shortcut to English votes for English laws, writes Alex Massie
WAS this the week the Union died? Lost, not by a vote of the Scottish people, but by a piece of parliamentary sleight-of-hand? The Scottish National Party appears to think so.
The UK government’s determination to press ahead with “English votes for English laws” and to do so, not via legislation, but simply by amending the House of Commons’ standing orders, sparked a furious backlash in Scotland last week. One, moreover, that united all three main opposition parties in condemning Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposals to limit the rights of non-English MPs to vote on matters of purely English concern.
According to Nicola Sturgeon, the proposals are “staggering in the extent of their hypocrisy and incoherence”. “There is no question”, she added, “that the great disrespect shown to Scotland in these proposals is likely to have more people asking whether Westminster is capable of representing Scotland’s interests at all.” The First Minister won support from some unlikely allies. Alistair Carmichael, the former secretary of state for Scotland, even went so far as to suggest “David Cameron is now a bigger threat to the continuation of the UK than Alex Salmond”.
Yet, despite this hyperbole, in many respects the government’s plans are less radical than they might have been. The proposed change in parliamentary standing orders does not create an English parliament within Westminster, nor, at present, would the government’s plans prevent Scottish MPs from speaking on English-only issues. Moreover, the government insists that bills which have financial consequences for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will not be subject to Evel.
Nevertheless, politics is frequently a question of symbolism as much as it is one of substance. The First Minister complains that the government’s changes are “all about cutting Scottish MPs out of votes which impact on Scotland and our budget”. The nationalist narrative insists that the Conservatives are an inveterately “anti-Scottish” party and that their enthusiasm for Evel should remind Scots that, when push comes to shove, the Tories will always put England first. Scots, meanwhile, will have to take what they are given and then, worse still, be expected to be grateful for whatever meagre pickings they are granted.
Sturgeon even went to far as hinting, albeit obliquely, that Cameron’s Evel proposal could even constitute the kind of “material change” in circumstance that would justify, in time, holding a second referendum on independence. That remains unlikely, not least because the SNP is cautious about pressing for another plebiscite at a time when the opinion polls still do not show overwhelming support for independence. None the less, it remains an ever-present “nuclear option”.
Kevin Pringle, the SNP’s outgoing communications supremo, tweeted his prediction that “Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell’s claim that Evel ‘will make the Union stronger’ will equal George Robertson’s ‘devolution will kill SNP stone dead’.” Evel, in other words, is less a means of rebooting the Union to make it fairer for all than a bell tolling its eventual demise. This suspicion is not confined to nationalist quarters. Former prime minister Gordon Brown has suggested Evel is nothing less than a “Tory trap” that will eventually “threaten the very existence of the United Kingdom”. It is certainly a highly partisan, even ruthless, manoeuvre that is likely to make it harder for any future Labour government to legislate for England. It is, said Ian Murray, Labour’s last MP in Scotland, a “constitutional wrecking ball”.
If Labour’s grounds for dismay are obvious, the SNP’s complaints seem, on the face of it, harder to justify. Stephen Noon, the leading nationalist strategist, tweeted: “Sitting here in the heart of Westminster, watching the Evel debate, it’s clear that the Union, like the building, is falling apart.” Is that, viewed from his perspective, supposed to be a bad thing?
All of which leaves us to bear witness to the apparently perplexing sight of nationalists fulminating against a development they believe will place intolerable strains upon the Union and lead to its eventual dissolution. A lay observer – that is to say a visitor from foreign lands – might wonder if these were crocodile tears. This seems a reasonable suspicion even if nationalists might counter that if Scotland is to remain a part of the United Kingdom it is only right and proper that it be a full and equal part of it.
Why, they protest, is this not what we were promised during the referendum campaign? Are we not a “family of nations”? Did the Prime Minister not make a point of reminding us that, thanks to certain awkward electoral realities in Scotland, his government would treat Scotland, and its devolved government, with a hefty amount of “respect”? Yes he did.
But of course Cameron also made certain promises to other parts of the realm, notably England. The zeal with which some on the Tory right have pressed the case for an English parliament has, I think, surprised many Scots. How can the English, being 85% of the UK population, really think they receive a raw deal? How can they be, in some odd fashion, the victims of a constitutional mugging? Aren’t the people who bang on about the need for English votes for English laws the same kind of people who, on International Women’s Day, ask bitterly why there isn’t an international men’s day? Perhaps so.
Nevertheless, there is no gainsaying the fact that English votes for English laws is an increasingly popular idea south of the Border. Sauce for the Scottish goose should be sauce for the English gander. As Richard Wyn Jones, professor of politics at the University of Cardiff, says, “The UK government has little choice but to respond to the very strong sense that undoubtedly exists among English voters that their country is being unfairly treated as a result of moves to devolve power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”
As the McKay Commission, set up by the last coalition government to investigate how best to answer the so-called West Lothian question, reported: “People in England do not perceive themselves as predominant, but rather as disadvantaged and lacking a voice under current arrangements.” This may still baffle Scots, but no amount of wishful thinking or pretending otherwise can deny the awkward reality of English opinion on this matter.
Once upon a time, the SNP sympathised with this position. Angus Robertson, now the SNP leader in the House of Commons, asked in 2007 if the Prime Minister agreed with him that it was “completely iniquitous” that English MPs “are not able to decide on matters in Scotland but Scottish MPs from the UK parties can vote on matters which only impact on England. Why does he not join the SNP in abstaining on these issues?”
Which, again, leaves us in the curious position of watching the SNP work themselves into a fury over the delivery of a policy they once supported themselves. Or, at any rate, the delivery of one version of a policy they once endorsed with great enthusiasm. As Alex Salmond told Total Politics magazine in 2008, “If you’re asking me should people in England be able to run their own health service or education system, my answer is yes. They should be able to do it without the bossy interference of Scots Labour MPs”. As Salmond observed, “We had that in reverse through the 1980s.”
Now, however, the nationalists raise the spectre of another independence referendum triggered because, for example, Scottish MPs would no longer be able to vote on a bill reorganising the provision of primary-level education in England. Really?
Even so, the UK government’s plans surely place the Speaker in an invidious decision. He or she will have to rule whether a bill is to be deemed “English only” and consequently subject only to approval by English members. Not only that, the Speaker will, on occasion, have to determine whether individual clauses within a “British” bill are “English only”. The potential for muddle and confusion is only too apparent.
More than 40 years ago, the Kilbrandon Commission on the constitution concluded, with some resignation, that “no advocate of federalism in the United Kingdom has succeeded in producing a federal scheme satisfactorily tailored to fit the circumstances of England”. Indeed, “there is no satisfactory way of fitting England into a fully federal system”. Little has changed since then. The same questions are asked and the same answers provided. Britain’s constitution, unwritten though it may be, is unavoidably asymmetrical. How could it be otherwise when England comprises 85 per cent of the population?
The government’s proposals are, in many respects, a classically British bodge job. A case of mend and make do rather than a fully thought through programme of meaningful constitutional reform. They are an attempt to address questions that are so old they predate even Tam Dalyell. Since the then MP for West Lothian first raised the anomaly of English MPs having no say over devolved matters while Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs might affect English laws, he has been a Cassandra crying in the wilderness. And yet his question was not novel even when he first asked it nearly 40 years ago.
The West Lothian Question was preceded by what might be dubbed the “West Meath Question” a century ago, when MPs debated home rule for Ireland, prime minister Herbert Asquith proposed that the Commons change its standing orders so that “the effective consideration and discussion of legislation affecting only one part of the United Kingdom” would only be voted upon “by those who, as representing that part, are alone directly interested”. Until that point, Irish members would continue to have “an unfettered right to vote” but this right could not be sustained indefinitely. In any case, with a parliament in Dublin the number of Irish MPs sent to Westminster would necessarily be sharply reduced.
The outbreak of the First World War shoved Irish Home Rule into a siding in which it rusted away, but Asquith’s remarks remind us these are ancient questions that have never been satisfactorily resolved.
Cameron’s government presents his reforms as a common-sense solution to an old question. Whether they can, as his ministers claim, “strengthen” the Union, must be a matter of some doubt. Fairness is a matter of perception and it is not hard to see how proposals viewed as fair in England seem rather different when viewed from a Scottish perspective.
The merest hint that Scottish MPs are in some vague sense “second-class citizens” at Westminster must risk undermining the idea that all four parts of the UK’s “family of nations” enjoy parity of esteem. That, at any rate, is the bet the SNP are making. The Tories insist Evel strengthens the Union; the SNP remain convinced it weakens it. They cannot both be right.