The Folly of Devolution Thus Far and (Worse) EVEL

The Parliament of the United Kingdom
(Credit: Jim Trodel via Flickr cc)

     Ever since the advent of devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in the late 1990’s, there has not yet been an answer to the infamous West Lothian Question, whereby MP’s from those areas cannot vote on matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, or Northern Irish Assembly, but can vote on such issues in the British Parliament at Westminster – even though their own constituents are not directly affected.

     Devolution of certain issues to those legislatures meant that such issues – like health and education – were no longer issues of a UK-wide concern, and were now effectively English issues being decided by the UK Parliament at Westminster – including by Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MP’s, despite English MP’s having no such say over devolved matters in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

     The West Lothian Question is so named because it was brought up by Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for West Lothian during the parliamentary debates on devolution in the 1970’s. It was he who asked how such a then-hypothetical situation could be sustained, and as such, he was a prominent opponent of devolution because nobody could provide him with an answer to his question.

     Now with devolution entering a stage in which substantial legislative and fiscal powers are set to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament (in fulfillment of the Vow made towards the end of the independence referendum campaign), there is an increasing need to answer Dalyell’s 40 year old question.

     Labour attempted to answer it by proposing regional devolution within England following the devolution it had established in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Tony Blair's government succeeded in a referendum to devolve power to Greater London, which involved the creation of the London Assembly and a directly elected Mayor of London. However, the attempt to create a devolved assembly in North East England was so heavily defeated by the electorate of that region in a 2004 referendum, that the idea was shelved for all the other regions (bar London), and the government effectively kicked an answer to the WLQ into the long grass.

     The answer that is now set to be pursued by the current Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron appears to be English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). This has been Conservative Party policy since devolution came about, and it has different variants, but the gist of it is that the Speaker of the House of Commons will determine which bills going through the Commons are applicable only to England (or England and Wales), and therefore require a majority of only English (or English and Welsh) MP’s to pass such legislation. Some variants of EVEL call for an absolute “veto” in which relevant MP’s will have the ultimate say over such legislation, regardless of how other MP’s may vote. Others merely allow for those MP’s alone to vote at the committee stage (where amendments can be made), whilst allowing the full Commons to vote on the legislation at its final stage.

     Either way, EVEL will likely mean some dilution in the voice of Scottish MP’s in the British Parliament because it is simply becoming more difficult to justify their votes on issues that do not affect their constituents – issues which have essentially become English issues because of devolution.

     What’s ironic is that the Scottish National Party (SNP) campaigned heavily at the last election on a platform of “making Scotland’s voice heard” and “giving a louder voice for Scotland” at Westminster – as if to say that Scotland never had a voice there, which is plainly ludicrous, as Scotland as been sending MP’s to Parliament since the Union began in 1707. (Here, they engage in the art form of conflating Scotland with the SNP.)

     However, as an acquaintance of mine in Scotland – a gentleman named Graeme – has said, devolution has “turned the hypothetical ‘West Lothian Question’ into reality, creating a situation in which Scottish MPs were voting on English affairs that English MPs no longer had any say over in Scotland.” Furthermore, he adds that as devolution was being implemented during the last Labour government (1997-2010), the UK had a Scot – Gordon Brown – “representing a Scottish constituency [and] serving as Chancellor and then Prime Minister formulating policies on health, education, policing, etc in England that were no longer within the remit of the UK Government within Scotland.”

     Now with the recent extraordinary success of the SNP in winning 56 of 59 Scottish seats in the Commons and the prospect of further devolution (including the full devolution of setting income tax) to Holyrood, the constitutional anomaly of the WLQ has become “unsustainable” and EVEL “has more or less” become inevitable.

     However, Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman disagrees with such notions, and claims that for decades, Scotland has had to put up with “England’s political preferences.” But this attempt to say that “karma’s a b****” with regard to Scottish influence across the UK ignores the changes wrought by devolution. It also ignores the idea that British general elections ought to be about what the voters across the UK want, as opposed to attempting to break the votes down by certain areas. However, even when you do this, what you find is that since World War II, Scotland has gotten the government it wants more often than not, and indeed on two occasions – in 1964 and 1974 – Scotland voted for and got a Labour government, even though England voted Tory. In a democracy, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.

     Nevertheless, devolution was brought about to address a “democratic deficit” with regard to Scotland’s place within the Union, and to lessen “English influence” on “Scottish affairs.” With this, logic follows that some people in England may wish to lessen “Scottish influence” on “English affairs.”

     McMillan says this ignores the “brute fact” that the UK is an asymmetrical union in which 85% of the population resides in one part of the country – England, and that EVEL will shut Scotland out of critical decisions that affect the UK as a whole – including Scotland.

     Unionists such as Graeme are then oft to point out that this is an admission that devolution – at the very least – is a flawed concept whose architects failed to think through its implications on Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole, and its implementation in a piecemeal manner failed to engage the UK as a whole on constitutional matters.

     They also contend that the asymmetry to which McMillan refers did not exist before devolution, for with a single sovereign parliament in London, all of the British people were represented by MP’s who could equally participate in the parliamentary process in full without question. This allowed for many Scots to take their rightful place in powerful and prominent positions in government – defense secretaries, home secretaries, foreign secretaries, chancellors of the Exchequer, and prime ministers – and representing the interests of the UK as a whole (including Scotland).

     Only after the highly-charged and emotive rhetoric of “Tory government’s we didn’t vote for” and “English laws imposed on Scotland” (especially following the eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s government – 1979-1990 – during which Scotland repeatedly voted Labour, though the UK as a whole voted Conservative) followed by devolution in 1999 did the fundamental nature of Scottish parliamentary representation come under question – first with the reduction of Scotland’s MP’s from 72 to 59, and now the proposals for EVEL.

     McMillan claims that this is “largely designed to massage the wounded pride of English Tory MPs by offering them a bump up the pecking-order in the public-school politics of Westminster.” However, with the West Lothian Question becoming a reality (as Tam Dalyell had warned), English MP’s – whatever their political stripe – have a legitimate constitutional issue. By attempting to solve one democratic deficit, another one was created in the process.

     This is not to say that EVEL is the optimal response, but after the clamor for “more powers” for the Scottish Parliament (including the prospect of Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA), where all taxes raised in Scotland would go to Holyrood) should anyone be surprised?

     But realistically, given the geographic reality, England will never truly be free of Scottish influence, and Scotland will certainly never be free of English influence.

     Using veteran nationalist Paul Henderson Scott’s description of Scotland’s relationship with England as that of being in bed with an elephant – and the need to be free of the elephant, Kenny Farquharson wrote recently in The Times that this failed to “acknowledge basic geography and economics.” Without the United Kingdom holding them together, Scotland and England may well move to separate beds, but will still have to share the same room – the same island, Great Britain. Being ten times the size of Scotland, Farquharson notes that “England will always be our bigger, more populous, more powerful neighbor” and what it does “politically, economically, culturally — will always have a profound effect on us [in Scotland].”

     In other words – despite what some nationalists may want to believe – Scotland cannot ignore its big sister, the elephant. Farquharson goes on to mention that Scotland’s exports within the UK – to England, Northern Ireland, and Wales – amounted to £44.9 billion, which is a considerable sum when one considers that Scottish exports to the rest of the world combined was £22 billion (and less than half of this was with the European Union).

     Indeed, one of the flaws of EVEL is how to know what issues can be classified as “English only” or “English and Welsh only”, for even though a piece of paper may say that, members from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can also argue that because of England’s size, legislation that legally applies only to England can (and will) have affects – particularly financial – on the rest of the UK.

     This is why EVEL is quite controversial, for it would create two classes of MP’s – English MP’s with full time access to the Commons and all stages of the parliamentary process in the Commons, and non-English MP’s who would effectively be told to stay out of their own parliament on certain days, even though the legislation and issues debated on those days may indirectly affect their constituents.

     It is also why even though Yes Scotland and the SNP were campaigning on the idea of Scotland being master of its destiny, they were also trying to argue for a form of independence that would retain links with the rest of the UK, but leave it without the ability to shape it, as the continuing Union would continue to substantially influence Scotland – regardless of the constitutional arrangements.

     This points to the importance of maintaining the United Kingdom as something that is in Scotland’s best interests, and maintaining as firm a Union as possible with full and complete parliamentary representation in Parliament for everybody, rather than trying to unravel it and creating more grievances along the way.

     Indeed, one of the reasons for the merger of England and Scotland into the UK was to give Scotland access to the much larger English markets, and this – along with the much wider British Empire – proved to be highly beneficial to Scotland. But even without the Empire, being part of the United Kingdom, as Farquharson points out, has been beneficial to Scotland’s economic prospects more than anything else, and UK as a whole has benefited from Scottish contributions (in terms of human, social, financial, natural, and instructional capital) that have helped to make it a global leader and significant world power, which in turn provides benefits to the UK – including Scotland.

     Attempting to loosen the UK with well-meaning, but ill thought out devolution and EVEL threatens to upset these necessary bonds – political, economic, and social – which keep Britain together. Indeed, one of the disheartening prospects is that there may never again be a Chancellor of the Exchequer or Prime Minister from Scotland representing a Scottish constituency.

     On this point, my friend Graeme believes that:

“Nationalism and devolution has not increased Scotland's power and influence within the Union, it has significantly diminished it. It has rendered much of Scotland's influence within the wider UK intolerable to that part of the UK which forms the majority of its population, and has made it very difficult for it to be [constitutionally] acceptable for any Scottish MP to occupy any cabinet post other than that of Foreign or Defence Secratary, because any other cabinet position would make them responsible for policies in England over which the English have no say over in Scotland, which the English no longer consider to be either fair or acceptable.”

     He further laments that thanks to “poorly handled devolution and [acquiescence] to nationalist demands” Scotland and Scots, “once a powerful and disproportionately influential voice within the Union, have rendered themselves in some respects as bystanders to larger issues within the United Kingdom” – many of which will continue to affect Scotland.

     The result, he fears, will be that “England and the English will come to dominate the UK far more than they have ever done” and that this was perhaps the way the nationalists had planned it, for it certainly would give them “even more grievance fuel to further their agenda”, and that some Scots “will believe them when they say that England is unfairly denying Scotland a voice within the UK by freezing them out of influence at Westminster.” It would make the roar of the Scottish lion “sound more like a cat’s mewling.”

     McMillan attempts to get around this by saying that it would be rather pompous for English Tories to talk about “speaking for England”, as if England is a homogenous community when in fact it is not – pointing out that “the England of the 21st century is a vastly diverse nation, which contains millions of people – from Liverpool to Portsmouth, from Truro to South Shields – who are fully as exasperated with the current Westminster establishment, and its failed politics of austerity, as any Scottish voter.” Her solution is to use the House of Lords as a chamber that represents the nations of the UK, as well as the regions within England, which in her view, would meet the “standards of 21st-century democracy.”

     As it is, I have written on how the Lords can be reformed in such a way. Looking back, this probably should have been the way to go in addressing the asymmetries that she refers to, which have also been noted by many pro-Union politicians such as Gordon Brown. If this had been achieved long ago, it may have averted the need for devolution, because it would have guaranteed a level of Scottish representation in the upper house that would have been on par – or nearly on par – with England, so that Scotland’s voice (or rather voices, since Scotland is just as diverse as England) could be heard and provide wisdom and scrutiny to government legislation. Even if a reformed Lords did not have the absolute ability to block government legislation, it could – with substantial Scots influence – force the government to think again on its agenda.

     Indeed, perhaps another flaw in devolution was that it made changes along the edges of the British constitution without also making changes at the center, and this has left the country with an unbalanced governmental structure that is prone to misunderstandings and grievance-mongering.

     Of course, there would still be people making the case for devolution and decentralization from London. In fact, the idea of revamping the United Kingdom into a federal union like the United States has taken hold in some quarters in the wake of the referendum. But even Gordon Brown has remarked that federalism can only go but so far in a country where 85% of the population lives in one area, and most forms of federalism still mean having a strong central government with the ability to levy and collect taxes, and make an array of laws that directly apply to all people throughout the entire union.

     In essence, federalism means that there are some powers exclusively exercised by the federal government, some powers exclusively exercised by the federated governments, and some powers are exercised jointly. For example, in the US and Germany, the setting of income and corporate taxes are a joint responsibility of federal and state governments. The federal governments and legislatures in both countries are quite powerful – though their power is limited in certain areas.

     Indeed, the authority of the British Parliament at Westminster has already been limited in practice, regardless of the fact that it possesses ultimate sovereignty across the UK. The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Irish Assembly, and London Assembly are now semi-permanent institutions to the point where no prime minister or his/her government will dare contemplate abolishing them.

     The issue at hand now is how these institutions, the British Parliament, and potential institutions in England can fit into a federal framework for the United Kingdom as a whole. This will require an end to ad hoc devolution (including the proposal for Full Fiscal Autonomy for Holyrood) as well as the crude answers contained in the proposals for EVEL. Joyce McMillan herself acknowledged that the decision to devolve control of setting income tax rates was “strange and hasty”, for the income tax allows for one of the most transparent forms of redistribution from wealthier parts of a country to another, and the concept of pooling and sharing resources throughout the United Kingdom for the benefit of all was one of the main arguments used for keeping Scotland as part of the Union.

     If the Union is to survive at this point, there needs to be the establishment of a UK constitutional convention that will attempt to sort out the issues of British governance and forge a lasting constitutional settlement that is as “fair” as possible to everybody.  It means looking at the United Kingdom as a whole and having a firm understanding of how it ought to work going forward, which – among other things – means defining the powers of a federal UK Parliament (as Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution does for the US Congress), the limits on the federal parliament (Article 1, Section 9), and the powers and limitations on the federated governments of the nations and regions within the UK (Article 1, Section 10).

     It also means defining the values that bring Britain together as a country, and establishing principles upon which the people and their representatives can build on.

     This effort will require an enormous amount of good faith, tact, skill, statesmanship (likely in the face of political party interest), creative imagination, and a sense of vision and purpose to make such a settlement a success. It will also require the participation of people from all walks of life in Britain – including ordinary citizens, civic organizations, and faith groups in an expression of British civic participation that may also facilitate bringing people together and forging a sense of a common identity and common ideals for Britain going forward. 

     The brute reality is that Scotland and England have been “interfering” in each others affairs for centuries, and they really can't help it, given the island they share. The Union simply made it official, and in my opinion, it is in everyone’s interest for Britain to remain together, for Britain has so much collective potential, and its people can achieve much more together – not just for themselves, but for the world at large – than they could ever do apart.