EVEL: Constitutional Earthquake or Wee Breeze in a Tea Cup?

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

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

     So it has happened: English Votes or English Laws, or EVEL.

     By a vote of 312 to 270 in the House of Commons, procedures in the lower chamber of Parliament have been changed to empower the Speaker of the House to determine whether legislation coming before the Commons affects England, England and Wales, or the entire United Kingdom as a whole. If the Speaker determines that it is an English or English and Welsh matter only, a “grand committee” of the affected MP’s will decide on amendments and if the matter can go forward to the next parliamentary stages, which involve all members of the House and results in a final vote by the full House. If however, the Speaker determines that it is a UK-wide matter, then the legislation will go through the normal parliamentary processes.

     This is government’s response to the long-asked West Lothian Question, which refers to the situation whereby Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MP’s are able to vote on matters at Westminster which are now exercised by their respective devolved legislatures. This effectively means that they are voting on some issues that do not directly affect their constituents – ones which directly affect England only – but English MP’s cannot do the same to with regard to devolved issues (such as health and education) in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. It is an anomaly that has been debated and discussed for nearly 40 years during the debates on Scottish and Welsh devolution, and even farther back to the debates on Irish Home Rule.

     The basic principle is that as more central government powers are devolved to the legislatures in Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh, English MP’s at Westminster should have a greater say on matters that affect only their constituents – lest an English-only bill supported by the majority of English MP’s is defeated by a majority of MP’s from across the whole United Kingdom, including those from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

     Sounds simple? It isn’t.

     For starts, the Palace of Westminster is home to the Parliament of the United Kingdom (which includes England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), and as such, all matters before it should be decided amongst all MP’s, regardless of their geographical location.

     Furthermore, what issues are “English only” or “English and Welsh only”? Without a known criteria, this may well become a contentious issue, for even though a matter may be viewed as English-only in its legal and territorial definition, MP’s from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can also argue that the legislation can (and will) have effects on the rest of the UK.

     Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of public spending, because through the Barnett Formula – the mechanism which decides how money is allocated throughout the UK – spending decisions applying to England have knock-on effects in other parts of the UK. If public spending in England goes up by 2% for any reason in any area, then the amount of block grant money allocated to the Scottish Parliament for example must rise as well. This matters on issues such as proposals to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport in London, so that if money is spent on it from the UK Treasury, then spending in Scotland must increase by a proportionate amount. If health spending decreases in England, then the block grant also gets cut for the devolved legislatures. These are known as “Barnett Consequentials”, and are therefore presented as a reason why non-English MP’s ought to continue to vote on some “English” matters because of their indirect effects elsewhere. (It should be noted that public spending in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales is typically higher per head than the UK average, whilst in England, it tends to be slightly lower.)

     There is also concern regarding the potential politicization of the Speaker, a person who must observe political neutrality in his or her position. This may prove difficult when making decisions on what is and is not an English-only matter, and the decision reached by the Speaker will have far-ranging consequences either way with the decision that is reached, because they will establish precedents for future decisions. A Speaker may also be accused of acting in the interests of one party or the other, or far worse, acting in the interest of one part of the UK over the other, and this may undermine the authority and legitimacy of the Speaker.

     However, the biggest problem with EVEL pertains to the composition of the Commons itself and the government of the day. A UK government is formed by the party that commands the confidence of the Commons, and this is usually done by having that party holding a majority of seats via a general election. Traditionally, this means that the governing party has the ability to get its agenda through via the support of its MP’s from throughout the country.

     But with EVEL, this becomes problematic if a government has an overall UK majority, but not a majority in England, and if a Speaker determines that an issue becoming before the Commons is “English-only” and a grand committee of English MP’s effectively vetoes the legislation before it comes to the full House. It could – as some fear – lead to a situation where the government cannot act effectively and is held hostage by the UK minority/English majority – resulting in the sort of political stand-offs like those in the US with situations where the houses of Congress and the White House are controlled by different parties. It could potentially generate a massive constitutional crisis and put the Union under terrific strain.

     Interestingly, the party that appeared to be most concerned about EVEL was the SNP, the very political party that wants to break up Britain.

     Leading the charge was the SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, Pete Wishart, who could not contain his “outrage” when he tweeted, “Well that’s it. With a majority of 42, Scots MPs are now second class in the UK parliament they were so determined to keep us in.” He further claimed that the change in standing orders amounted to a “slap in the face to Scots voters which they are unlikely to forget”.

     This was the man who claimed – quite passionately – last year on the BBC that he had “no concern or issue” with EVEL, and claimed that it was “an issue that the Scottish people could not care less about”. To Wishart, the debate over EVEL was an “inconsequential spat” which Scots were “not interested in”, and the voters in his constituency “could not care less about policing in Peckham or Plymouth.”

     Indeed, up until recently, the SNP believed in the principle of EVEL and Scottish MP’s abstaining on English matters. In 2007, Angus Robertson, the SNP leader in the Commons asked Prime Minister Gordon Brown (an Scottish MP) if it was not “completely iniquitous” that MP’s representing English constituencies “are not able to decide on matters in Scotland but Scottish MPs…can vote on matters which only impact on England. Why does he not join the SNP in abstaining on these issues?”

     Think of that: the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom not being able to vote on an issue in Parliament – probably a bill backed by his or her government – simply because he or she represents a Scottish constituency.

     This of course, would be the natural concern of pro-Union folks who do not want to see Scotland’s voice in any way diminished at Westminster or have top ministerial posts denied to them by the effects of EVEL.

     However, the self-righteous outrage by the SNP was nothing less than rank hypocrisy and an attempt to engage in grievance-mongering about Scotland’s place in the UK. The SNP deputy leader Stewart Hosie, who was recently owned in an interview by Andrew Neil last Sunday, mockingly referred to the campaign last year to save the Union with his remark that, “When they said ‘Better Together’ they meant second class. When they said ‘lead, don’t leave’ they meant Scots votes don’t count.”

     For a party that likes to claim that pro-Union parties are behind the curve on the changes wrought by devolution (like on matters such as the BBC and taxation), it is somewhat amusing that they are the ones getting all hopped-up here, especially when their former leader Alex Salmond once said:

If you’re asking me should people in England be able to run their own health service or education system, my answer is yes. They should be able to do it without the bossy interference of Scots Labour MPs. We had that in reverse through the 1980s.

     That last sentence refers to when the Conservatives had a majority throughout the UK as a whole, but not in Scotland where Labour held the majority of seats, which led to the idea of English MP’s “overruling” the will of the Scottish people. Back then, there was only one parliament which represented all of the British people in full and laws were made on the behalf of and for the British people from Shetland to Land’s End. For that reason, the idea of English MP’s overruling Scottish ones made little sense, and was more about stoking grievances. Nevertheless, the eventual response was devolution and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but there was no corresponding action in England. Now that this has occurred with EVEL, the Nationalists are outraged.

     Never mind that this is the consequence of devolution and forget their own previous statements. It’s at this point where I defer to Alex Massie of The Spectator, who wrote:

“There is something irksome about all this gurning; a reminder that grievance is the nationalists’ reserve currency. Ignore them and they will howl; give them what they want and they will find a reason to complain too.

And what of Scotland, poor old Scotland? As always, she is the victim. Whatever happens, she will be molested. The only thing worse than London’s interference in her affairs is London’s indifference to those affairs. And vice versa.”

     Let us not forget: the SNP wants see Britain broken up, which is why for all of the indignation they show, they actually welcome EVEL because it gives them yet another ax to grind which they can use for separation. After all in their eyes, it’s just another example of Scotland being mistreated by big bad Westminster. If anything, their decision back in the summer to announce that they would vote on the issue of fox hunting in England and Wales may well have been an attempt to goad David Cameron to ensuring that EVEL became a reality, so that they can use it for their never-ending campaign for secession. They know that since their economic case for secession is tenuous at best, the biggest asset to their ultimate and overriding aim is making Scotland to be the victim, and if that means inconsistency on the issue of English votes, so be it. Stoking up grievance and resentment is their stock and trade, and if it means poisoning relations between England and Scotland for the sake of an independent Scotland, then so be it.

     It is partly for this reason that I believe EVEL is a bad idea. Despite the Natpocrisy, it plays into their hands with the charge that Scottish MP’s – along with their Northern Irish and (at times) Welsh counterparts – have been reduced to second class status at Westminster, which feeds into the belief that only English voices matter and that Scots are not wanted (and need not be heard) in what is supposed to be the UK Parliament, despite the claim of being “better together.”

     Indeed, I expect that the SNP will be all too happy for the Speaker to declare something as English-only so that they whine about it and crank up the grievance machine.

     Then again, the West Lothian Question had to be solved, for the alternative would have been for it to be a festering contention for some people in England who saw non-English MP’s voting on what had effectively become English matters, due to devolution.

     After all, if 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,” logic follows that some people in England may wish to lessen “Scottish influence” on “English affairs.”

     Joyce McMillan, a columnist for The Scotsman, said that 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.

     However, some pro-Union supporters say that this 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).

     In other words, if EVEL had been enacted without devolution – with Scottish representation cut or downgraded for no reason at all – then that would provide more legitimacy to the case for separation. But with devolution, the constitutional dynamics had changed, even has the politicians struggled to come to terms with it, and to some extent, attempted to ignore the issue and pretend it did not exist.

     Indeed, Alex Massie wrote in The Spectator that “the best answer to the West Lothian Question was always to stop asking it” and hope that it would just go away quietly, but recent events – the 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 Edinburgh – have meant that this approach will no longer work.

     From this perspective, he believes that EVEL is a “milquetoast” reform and the “least bad option available.” Other people I know on Twitter and Facebook have referred to it as “a very minor measure”, “hardly the equality of devo”, and “a wee breeze in teacup”.

     Indeed, Massie does not believe that the EVEL procedures will be used very often because he believes that the current Speaker, John Bercow, will “take an inclusive approach to these matters; an approach that will please SNP members more often than it does English MPs.” He further makes an example of how adding a third runway at Heathrow – while appearing to be an “English-only” issue – is more likely a UK-wide issue because airport capacity is something which affects the whole country. Furthermore, the aforementioned “Barnett Consequentials” also mean “that there are fewer England-only bills than often appreciated”, and if the Speaker takes these things into consideration, then EVEL may well “prove a constitutional earthquake so tiny most people will scarcely notice it.”

     Using this point of view, EVEL may be a symbolic gesture to assure most people in England that there are procedures in place to ensure that MP’s representing English constituencies will have greater scrutiny on matters deemed to be English-only. Even if the Grand Committee of English MP’s vote for consent of an England-only bill to go through to the full House of Commons, it is still possible that the bill can be defeated there. And of course, it is possible that the procedure may only be used to a such a limited extent as Massie suggests, so that the overall effect is moot, and even Chris Grayling, the Conservative Leader of the House of Commons, said that he anticipated that only three or four upcoming pieces of legislation may be subjected to EVEL.

      Nevertheless, Westminster is the parliament of the whole United Kingdom, and there should be no debate or question about as to who gets to vote on what, or at a particular stage just because they happen to represent the “wrong” constituency.

     This is why I believe that EVEL is a crude idea that at best is a short-term political answer, rather than a long-term constitutional solution for the United Kingdom. Indeed, the story of devolution thus far is that it was been a series of ad hoc processes with no real unifying concept with regard to the relationship between the UK and its constituent parts, and this has left the country with an unbalanced governmental structure that has eroded the constitutional fabric of the UK, and is prone to misunderstandings and grievance-mongering

     There are no easy answers, but there are ideas which should be taken into consideration. One is the reformation of the House of Lords into a chamber that represents the nations and regions of the UK, which is something about which I have written. Looking back, this probably should have been the way to go in addressing the asymmetries within the UK, 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.

     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, and Northern Irish 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.

     Balance and fairness must be restored to the constitution, for the integrity and stability of the United Kingdom, is on the line and I believe that excessive and short-sighted devolution combined with similarly short-sighted EVEL only serve to weaken and destabilize it. Indeed, it would be optimal to go back to the way things were before 1999, and start over with such a convention, and alas, we have to work with the current circumstances. Who knows? Perhaps through the debate and discussion of a convention, people may realize that having different tax jurisdictions may not work in a country the size of the UK.

     The brute reality is that Scotland and England have been “interfering” in each other’s 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.

     Taking all this into account, EVEL may not be either an earthquake or a wee breeze - perhaps something in between. Hopefully, it can lead to a greater understanding of the constitution, as well as a deeper and more meaningful look into how it can best serve the needs and interests of all the people of the United Kingdom going forward.