Evel but not evil: how to deliver ‘English votes for English laws’ without breaking the UnionBy Paolo Dardanelli on 21 October 2014
With constitutional reform high on the parliamentary agenda, the notion of ‘English votes for English laws’ (Evel) has moved to the centre of the debate. While there is strong momentum behind it, it has attracted equally strong criticism from many quarters. Most have branded it as an unnecessary and brazenly partisan manoeuvre by the Conservative party. Yet there is something to be said for both sides of the argument and focussing on the partisan dimension prevents us from appreciating the fuller picture.
The belief that no change is needed in the way England is governed is naïve. The reality is that the UK is ‘going Dutch’ and its constitutional architecture will have to adapt if the Union is to survive. By ‘going Dutch’ I mean that it is moving in the direction of being a political system made up of four increasingly distinct units. It is thus coming to resemble the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which is made up of four, largely autonomous, countries. Such an evolution will have significant consequences for the parties, with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland likely to develop their own increasingly different party systems. The ‘English party system’ is already very different from those in Scotland and Wales due to the growing strength of Ukip as well as the absence of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, while the Northern Irish parties have always been exclusive to the province. The statewide parties themselves are likely to evolve in a similar direction, to the point where they might be more accurately described as a family of separate parties rather than branches of the same party. If so, the distinction between governing England and governing the UK will inevitably become a sharper one and any party aiming to govern England will have to do so on the basis of its support there.
What is to be done?
How should such a looser Union be governed? Three options have attracted the most attention. The first would be to devolve additional powers to Scotland, as promised in the run-up to the referendum, but maintain the status quo as regards England. The second would be to exclude the Scottish – and possibly also Welsh and Northern Irish – MPs from voting on England-only laws or reduce their number so that the likelihood of ‘English laws’ being enacted without the backing of a majority of English MPs would be minimised. The third would be the adoption of a full-scale federal system, entailing the creation of an English parliament and an English government operating alongside a British parliament and government. All three of them, however, would bring significant downsides that might put the Union at risk again in the medium term. The status quo is likely to raise English resentment at the ‘privileges’ being enjoyed by the other nations and fuel calls for their abolition. Marginalising Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs or reducing their number would further detach the minority nations from British political life and erode the bonds between them and England. As often remarked, it is difficult to see how a classic federal constitution would work in the UK given England’s overwhelming preponderance. Moreover, the creation of new institutions of government, however well-intentioned, is unlikely to be popular with voters at a time of deep disillusion with politicians. To be successful, constitutional reform has to meet three objectives. First, it should give greater control over their own affairs to each of the UK’s four component countries. Second, it should compensate for the disintegrating dynamics such a process would generate by also tying the four countries more closely together within a renewed Union. Third, it should minimise the growth of government and the proliferation of institutions.
Lords to the rescue
These competing objectives could be optimised through a rejuvenation of the moribund bicameralism at the heart of the UK political system. The House of Commons would be elected entirely from English constituencies and would be competent for legislation only affecting England. The House of Lords would be transformed into a directly elected ‘house of nations’ and would have control over matters concerning the UK as a whole. While the lower house could continue to be elected by first-past-the-post, the upper house should be elected by a form of proportional representation such as the single transferable vote. In such a transformed House of Lords, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be over-represented compared to England so that the latter would not have more than, say, 60 per cent of the seats. The government as a whole would continue to be responsible only to the Commons and would be formed by the party or parties controlling a majority of seats there, as at present. In the upper house, by contrast, the government would have to rely on a different majority or seek one on a case by case basis. The House of Lords would have the power to force the resignation of the cabinet members holding ministerial portfolios within its oversight, through a vote of ‘individual no confidence’. As a matter of convention, some of these portfolios should be allocated to non-English members of the upper house. There would thus be de facto an English parliament but not a separate English government. The different political make up and modus operandi of the two houses would match the different nature of their policy responsibilities as well as the diversity of political culture across the four constituent countries: the more partisan and adversarial (English) domestic policy in the Commons versus the more common-interest orientated and consensual (British) foreign affairs and macroeconomic regulation in the Lords.
Striking a balance
Although many aspects of such a reform would need deeper analysis than is possible here, it would have the advantage of delivering ‘Evel’ while giving the non-English parts of the kingdom a larger say in the way the UK is governed. It would thus provide some of the advantages of a federal set up but without the creation of new institutions and without the emergence of a potentially destabilising competition between an English and a British government. In the context of the evolution of the Union and of its party system/s, any partisan advantage brought by constitutional reform will likely be short-lived so the different options should be judged in terms of their pros and cons for the preservation of the Union and the quality of its government and democracy, rather than from a narrow partisan perspective.
Paolo Dardanelli is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Kent. His research explores the evolving connections between statehood, nationality, and democracy, with a particular focus on the structuring of political systems. For more information see his website.
Image: Brabantia Life CC BY-NC-ND