It is always disappointing to hear an intelligent man talking what he knows to be nonsense, so it was not edifying to witness William Hague promoting the EVEL doctrine in the House of Commons this week.
I am sure there is a superficial attraction for the Tories in this bout of pre-election populism. “English Votes for English Laws” may have a certain bulldog appeal. But the idea of putting it “at the centre of their election campaign” must serve as an encouraging indication that they do not have a lot else to go on.
In the spirit of festive goodwill, I advise them to kick the whole thing into touch.
Fighting an election campaign on the promise of confused constitutional reform, which few people care about, will not do them much good. Indeed, it is as likely to be counter-productive, particularly once Ukip outbids them, as they certainly will. David Cameron’s dash to the Downing Street lectern on the morning of 19 September was not a good idea. At that moment, there was much for him to be positive about. The United Kingdom had been saved from partition. The desire of the vast majority in England, as well as Scotland, to stick together had prevailed. He would not go down in history as the Prime Minister who broke up Britain.
In contrast to the fruits of that bright dawn, the West Lothian Question has been around for a long time. It did not cry out to be addressed that Friday morning. As Alistair Darling apparently warned Cameron, doing so would throw the Nationalists a lifeline for mischief.
That advice was ignored, and four versions of EVEL are now being pondered over, while the mischief is made.
Yet the West Lothian Question is only a problem for those who want to see it that way. When Tam Dalyell posed it in the 1970s, its appeal owed more to the power of alliteration than the seriousness of the argument. Scottish voters, Tam intoned, would be able to vote about issues affecting Liverpool but not Linlithgow, Oldham but not Oban. To which the correct answer was, and remains: “So what?”
The theology of devolution is straightforward. Westminster, in its infinite wisdom, has passed certain powers to the devolved administrations. Full stop.
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This is not an arrangement which was asserted unilaterally but was granted by the UK parliament, without any bearing on the rights of MPs representing Scottish constituencies. Neither was it without precedent, since Northern Ireland’s MPs were in the same situation.
As soon as that theology is disturbed, a different constitutional creature emerges, and it would almost certainly be an unsustainable one. If Westminster becomes a United Kingdom parliament on Mondays and Wednesdays but an English one on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then the contradictions are too intense and marginalisation too extreme to be credible. Is that what William Hague wants? It is certainly what Alex Salmond would love to achieve.
The practicalities of the West Lothian Question are much less significant than pretended. It has never been the post-devolution reality that a bus-load of Scottish Labour MPs turn up to vote down measures cherished by the Tories in England. It is unlikely in the future. By putting the confrontation of EVEL at the “centre of their election campaign”, the Tories are fighting a hypothesis rather than a reality.
To the great irritation of the Scottish Nationalists, the hallmark of English attitudes towards the West Lothian Question and its anomalies has been tolerant indifference rather than the grievance-laden chippiness with which we are all too familiar. OK, the Scots get a bit more money and sometimes decide to do things differently. Hasn’t that always been the case? What’s the big deal?
Even if Cameron and, heaven help us, John Redwood succeed in whipping up a ferment of resentment, with Salmond stirring the pot, it is doubtful if the Tories would be the major beneficiaries. “English Votes for English Laws” is more the language of Little Englanders who do not approve of foreigners in general or Europeans in particular and might be persuaded to add Scots to the list. But most of them are voting Ukip anyway.
If the constitutional anomalies are now unacceptable, they must also be serious enough to merit comprehensive scrutiny with a view to reform. Would England, within a redrawn UK, wish to be treated as a single entity in which Surrey permanently ruled Durham? What place is there for a House of Lords within a 21st-century framework which celebrates diversity while also requiring cohesion? (The question is rhetorical).
It also seems likely that this appeal to “English voters” greatly under-estimates the complexities of that term.
Part of the argument against Scottish independence was that we should not walk away from people with the same social and economic interests elsewhere in the UK.
The same argument works in reverse. The Scottish and Welsh presence at Westminster is an essential ally for the same interests in England.
I also dispute whether there is all that much “purely English” legislation to worry about.
Again, from the referendum campaign, it was a key argument that while management of the NHS budget is devolved to Holyrood, there is also much that binds us together as a truly National Health Service for the whole United Kingdom. It would be farcical for every clause of every bill to be subjected to a verdict on whether it was “English only”. Or take a less high-profile example. At present, legislation is going through Westminster on the right of brewery-owned pubs in England to sell guest beers (including ones from Scotland). On the face of it, this would be a classic EVEL issue, but it isn’t. There are significant Scottish consequences involved.
It just illustrates the point that we are a small island and most legislation, directly or indirectly, impinges on all parts of it.
It is easy to see why those who want to break up the United Kingdom, or don’t care one way or another, are eager to promote the EVEL doctrine.
Everyone with the opposite motivation, from all parties, should find something more substantial to put at the centre of their election campaigns – or else risk fatal damage to a cause in which they are supposed to believe.
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