This afternoon the constitution of the United Kingdom was changed by 312 MPs whose party won 36.9% of the vote in this year’s General Election. English MPs will now have a veto on legislation which affects “English-only” matters in the UK Parliament (English Votes for English Laws or EVEL as it’s more commonly known) – leaving the elected members of the house from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland powerless to do the job they were sent to Westminster to do.
It’s a constitutional shake-up the like of which other countries would require rigorous public scrutiny and potentially a referendum to implement, but one that the UK’s informal constitutional arrangement of parliamentary sovereignty makes as easy as winning a General Election. The course of politics in this country has potentially changed dramatically and the people have scarcely been involved.
What the Conservatives have done is implement a form of gerrymandering posing as an attempt at devolution for England. This gives the English people precisely no more power than they had already. Even worse, those who voted in the General Election for their UK MPs will have no chance until 2020 to elect a representative that reflects the remit of the job – to legislate for both the UK and England. This is a democratically significant nuance that only true devolution can bring, and what EVEL fails at spectacularly.
The Labour party, already currently beset by internal strife, now faces the prospect of being in the perpetual opposition in England as it will very rarely hold a majority of MPs from England (only ever doing so in 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005). This means that the party will need to shift their focus to be more Anglo-centric to muster up the possibility of a “win” in England, which will surely alienate voters who’ve already deserted them in Scotland.
All of this neglects the fact that with the inefficient devolution system we have in the UK that there is no such thing as a truly “English-only” issue. Barnett consequentials, a term that has been dramatically thrust into the public limelight with the EVEL debate, mean that any funding issue that is debated by English MPs for financing the likes of the NHS and the education system has a direct knock-on effect on the budgets allocated to the Scottish & Welsh Governments and Northern Ireland executive. It’s true that these Governments can choose to spend their funding as they wish, but when their funding is cut because of ideological decisions made by MPs that are unaccountable and unopposable, it has a real tangible impact.
Earlier this year we saw a very concrete example of Scottish MPs being instrumental in an English-only action as the threat of SNP opposition to the proposed repeal on the foxhunting ban saw the Conservative Government shelve their plans at the last minute. While this was a victory for them, for the opposition (and arguably for moral and common sense), it stoked a flame for the Tories to implement their EVEL plans. This was a very prominent example of an issue that had no knock-on effect for Scotland, as foxhunting is banned by the Scottish Parliament, but the opposition to it by SNP MPs was classed as a moral, rather than political, one. Such opposition may give Scottish MPs too much power, it’s true, but the efforts at redressing the balance of this West Lothian question have tipped the scales in the opposite direction.
England is entirely welcome to devolution of its own, and if this ramshackle union is to hold for very much longer then it needs to have power devolved in a way that suits it. There needs to be either an English Parliament or a stronger devolution to the regions of England that allow for solutions that reflect the will of the people more clearly than Westminster ever can. The Tories’ feeble excuse for devolution does England a great injustice just as much as it does the rest of the UK.
And for those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland it all means that there is a serious prospect of their voices being drowned out completely at Westminster. It’s likely there could never be another Scottish or Welsh Prime Minister, as it would be highly unlikely for a party to choose a leader who could not lead much of a legislative programme in Parliament. And what recourse do their MPs have at opposing the budget cuts (or the measures that lead to them) that are levelled their way because of the Barnett Formula? These questions are serious constitutional problems that the EVEL project has brushed over and avoided, which are now too late to be addressed.
After Scotland’s independence referendum, more than ever, was a time for the UK Government to take a sensible and considered look at devolution across these islands and come to a settlement that makes the people hold the power and to pacify the palpable thirst the public has for local decision making. But what has happened is David Cameron and Co. may well have rang the death knell for the very traditions of British politics and for the Union itself.