English Votes for English Laws: Why Politicians should not “Bring it On!”By David Moon on 5 January 2015
The May 2015 General Election will be the first since 1997 where devolution has been a first order issue, with ‘English Home Rule’ reported to be ‘at the heart of the Conservatives’ election campaign’. Alongside this, the constitutional futures of Wales and Scotland – where Bills devolving further powers are going through Parliament – are all also on the table. The old Union is dead; the new Union is struggling to be born. Unfortunately, the run-up to a General Election is a terrible time to formulate policy in such a complex area, the ‘debate’ being driven less by long-term constitutional thinking and more by vote-winning strategies that could endanger the Union. The nature of this pre-election debate says a lot about state of UK politics in the run up to May 2015 and beyond – not good things.
The complexity of answering the West Lothian Question – placed back onto the agenda by the Scottish referendum – is well known. Lord Irvine previously half-joked that the answer to the West Lothian Question was not to ask it. At the time, William Hague retorted that the answer might just be to not ask Lord Irvine. Fast forwarding to the current debate over ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL), it also seems the answer is not to ask William Hague. As Leader of the House, Hague has been heading up a cabinet committee ‘investigating’ the issue and published a report containing recommendations for a new system. Discussing the subject, Hague now apparently sees little problem discerning an answer (or at least the outline of one), claiming that it is “hard to argue” against EVEL – which has been Conservative Party policy since his leadership. This is third class thinking by the former Foreign Secretary; undergraduate politics student essays and exams across the country are able to complete the feat that Hague apparently finds hard. Indeed, the problems inherent in EVEL have been reiterated in multiple interventions by constitutional experts. Rather than detailing the pros and cons of the policy again, it is useful to look at the nature of the debate itself.
Hague’s claim that it is “hard to argue” against EVEL is correct in one sense, because while it may be easy to identify numerous problems with the policy, it certainly appears difficult for politicians to have a serious argument about them. This is not to say that many MPs have not made the case against EVEL, often demonstrating a sophisticated knowledge of the subject in so doing. The problem is that a real policy debate requires two sides to be engaged and this is not happening. Nor do the conditions appear auspicious that it ever will be as long as the House of Commons, rather than a national constitutional convention, is the primary forum of deliberation. The problem here is twofold.
First, it is in the Conservative Party’s interest to keep the subject alive and running as a partisan positioning point heading into May 2015. By articulating the policy in such a manner as to strip it of its inherent complexity and frame it within the rhetoric of patriotism and fairness, the Conservatives have a near perfect electoral weapon against Labour – who currently reject the policy for both practical and partisan reasons. Acknowledging complexity would weaken the sting of such rhetoric; instead John Redwood MP describes EVEL as about “simplicity and justice”. Thus, skimming Conservative MPs’ tweets from December 16th as Hague outlined his initial offers on EVEL, I found Jake Berry MP celebrating a situation in which ‘William Hague wraps himself in the flag of St George and slays the Labour dragon’. Framed in this way, the Conservative attitude to EVEL was evident in another tweet, from Theresa Coffey MP: “Bring it on!”.
This attitude is made easier by a second, more long-term cultural disposition within Westminster politics – a general difficulty in approaching constitutional reform as part of a coherent, long-term plan. Supporters of the UK’s uncodified constitution praise the flexibility it allows to tweak and alter the state to meet new circumstances – an attitude which surely in part explains the The Times’s hysterical front page last November pronouncing an alleged ‘Fear of a federal UK’! Alongside this delight in flexibility and incremental reform, comes a simultaneous acceptance of constitutional inconsistencies and asymmetries that, in turn, can create a tendency towards sloppy policy, made on the hoof. This is a problem with both Labour and Conservatives. The West Lothian question is itself a case in point, coined in the 1970s, but left unresolved since the 1998 devolution settlement. The panicked vow during the Scottish referendum to keep the Barnett formula is another example, clearly pledged to secure a No vote without thought of (or concern about) the ramifications – not least for combining it with EVEL as was the Prime Minister apparent (secret) intention even at the time of the pledge.
The Barnett Formula makes EVEL practically unworkable. Under the current formula, any alteration of spending per head in England affects spending per head in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Resultantly, any legislative change with spending implications in England is not an ‘English Only Law’, meaning MPs representing non-English seats would logically have a right to vote on it. The claim by Hague, when this matter was raised, that “as tax-raising powers are devolved to Scotland, that will become less relevant over time” was a clear example of the aforementioned nonchalance about constitutional coherence and good governance – not least in so far as it ignored the (changing) situations in Northern Ireland and Wales – the latter already underfunded by Barnett according to the Holtham commission.
Hague’s attitude here displays another development within UK politics. Politicians – the Conservatives in particular, but also Labour – have not been, and are still not taking the future health of the Union seriously. Whatever the outcome of the Scottish referendum was, it would obviously mean a new debate over England. That Labour seemingly missed this shows a shocking lack of insight or concern with the balance of power within the Union – as if everything would ‘go back to normal’ with a No vote – their collapse in the polls in Scotland since is, in part, their reward. The Prime Minister’s decision, however, to use the morning after speech to announce plans to strip Scottish MPs of powers at Westminster was a remarkable piece of politicking at the expense of statesmanship: revealing an apparently hitherto unmentioned coda to Scots voting to remain in the Union. Rhetoric since then, from some elements of the Conservative Party – regarding Scottish MPs, or descriptions of Welsh patients using NHS services in England as “refugees” – has shown a similar lack of interest in maintaining good relations with their Celtic brothers and sisters. England, after all, has the votes needed and with another hung parliament looking certain, with UKIP positioning itself as the patriotic English party, in the short term, the mainstream parties need winning policies to grab voters. In the long-term the health of the Union is a secondary concern.
David S Moon is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Bath. He tweets @David_S_Moon.
Image: Andrew Hick CC BY NC-ND