THE House of Commons has just voted in favour (by 312 MPs to 270) of English votes for English laws (EVEL). Superficially a piece of legislative housekeeping—it became law by standing order—this measure fundamentally changes the way the United Kingdom functions. The country should be an unwieldy, unstable beast: few multi-part polities in which one segment is much mightier than the others work out. But Britain’s union, 84% of which is England, has lasted for three centuries because the English have for centuries allowed their political identity to be blurred into that of the British state (as I argued more fully in a recent column, pasted below this post). Today’s vote draws a line under that; a faint one, perhaps, but a line nonetheless.
Its roots lie in the febrile final days of the campaign leading up to Scotland’s independence referendum last September. Polls suggesting that the Out side was narrowly ahead panicked unionists in London, who issued a “vow” promising extensive new powers for Edinburgh. On the morning after the In victory David Cameron, in a speech outside 10 Downing Street, argued that it was also time for England to gain some self-determination. The moment had come, he argued, for EVEL: a system giving MPs for seats in England precedence in parliamentary votes no longer relevant to the devolved parts of the United Kingdom that now control swathes of their own domestic policies (most notably Scotland). The Conservatives used this pledge to tar Labour, opposed to EVEL, as the vassal of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) in the run up to the election in May. Duly elected with a majority, the Tories have now enacted it.
I struggle to find the measure particularly offensive. It is wrong that Scottish MPs get to rule on bills concerning, say, only English hospitals. But banning them from participating in such votes would create the risk of two separate governments; one English, one British (in the event of a Labour government reliant on its Scottish MPs, for example). So EVEL rightly gives English MPs a veto, but also requires all bills to pass the House of Commons as a whole. As compromises go, it could be worse.
Still, the risk of a “two-tier” Commons is real. In a chamber where all are notionally equal Scottish MPs will be less powerful than English ones. EVEL greatly inflates the role of the speaker, whose job it will be to decide whether a bill is English-only—and thus whether the English majority should wield a veto. In practice, he will generally rule on the side of Britishness. This, and the fact that further fiscal powers will soon travel north to Edinburgh (meaning that even budget votes could generate expectations of an English veto), will eventually render EVEL insufficient. It seems to me that this movie has two possible endings.
The first, happier one is federalisation. Giving England power over things that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already control would clear the way to a Parliament and government in Downing Street responsible only for matters affecting all British citizens equally: foreign affairs, defence, monetary policy and so forth. An English Parliament risks exacerbating the problem that for centuries has been smothered in the mushy blur of Englishness and Britishness: the unworkable rivalry between any English government and a British one. But English devolution could yet take different forms. Sub-national authorities in England are already assuming powers unthinkable a few short years ago: Greater Manchester will soon run its own health service, for example. The long-term solution to Britain’s constitutional quandaries is probably a federal system in which Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Bristol, Cardiff, Southampton, Edinburgh and Belfast meet together, on equal terms, in London.
The second and more likely possible outcome is separation. English self-denial has long been the glue holding the union together. It is melting. Both EVEL and the broader rise in an English sense of identity (comprehensively outlined in a 2012 paper by the IPPR, a think-tank) suggest that the United Kingdom is experiencing a great normalisation. Its constutitional imbalance is finally asserting itself. A ship that has sailed forth for many years despite a strong tilt is finally listing towards the waves. Last year’s Scottish referendum—and the strong appetite for a rerun evinced at the recent Scottish National Party conference—suggests that it is already taking on water. EVEL may prove the point at which it tips too far; at which England’s reemergence accelerates and at which the ship capsizes.
England’s sensible slumber
The English are under-represented in the United Kingdom—but only because they dominate it
SINCE England forged its union with Scotland in 1707, its commentators and politicians have sporadically fretted that it might end up under the yoke of other parts of the United Kingdom. In the 1760s, for example, a London newspaper, the North Briton, vilified Scots and decried their influence in Westminster. Its editor, John Wilkes, opined in print that “no Scot ever exerted himself but for a Scot” and that one pro-Scottish MP was “base, selfish, mean, abject, low-lived and dirty”. The MP in question challenged him to a duel in Hyde Park. Wilkes accepted and ended up writhing on the grass, a bullet embedded in his groin.
English commentators are once more aquiver about their northern neighbours. During last September’s referendum campaign on Scottish independence, unionist politicians pledged to devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament. This transfer—including control of income-tax rates—is currently on its way through the House of Commons. Once passed, it will mean that many big decisions taken in Westminster will no longer directly affect Scottish voters. Yet under Parliament’s rules Scotland’s 59 MPs (56 of whom are from the pro-independence Scottish National Party) will still get to vote on these.
In the coming weeks David Cameron will therefore seek to institute “English votes for English laws” (EVEL). This, he argues, would correct the imbalance: finally giving England a parliamentary identity and preventing MPs representing other parts of the United Kingdom from foisting unwanted policies on the (relatively Conservative-leaning) English. The Scottish nationalists furiously oppose EVEL, insisting that, as Edinburgh’s budget is based on English spending, its MPs should continue to vote on English policies. Labour too is hostile, noting that EVEL would tip the balance in Westminster towards the Tories, in effect increasing Mr Cameron’s seat-share from 51% to 60%.
English votes could take one of several forms, three of which were sketched out by William Hague, a former Conservative leader, in a report in December. The mildest option would be an informal convention by which legislation affecting only England would clear the Commons only if ratified by a majority of English MPs. A stronger version would give them a formal veto. The most drastic of the three would exclude non-English MPs from such votes altogether—a state of affairs only just short of the separate English Parliament that some Tory MPs favour.
Choosing between these options entails a trade-off between England’s distinctiveness and representation on one hand, and the coherence of the United Kingdom on the other. An informal convention should do little to inflame separatism in Scotland and other parts of the country. But something resembling an English Parliament would soon come to dominate Westminster, sidelining non-English MPs and destabilising the union.
Which approach to take? Some demand radicalism. Conservatives like John Redwood point to polling suggesting that the English are ever more cross at Edinburgh’s generous spending settlement and Scottish MPs’ unfair influence in Westminster. Leftists like Jon Cruddas, a Labour MP, are also keen on devolution to England—and a warmer embrace of English identity by the British establishment. They claim Englishness is on the rise, pointing to the success of the populist UK Independence Party, which promotes an English parliament.
Bagehot advises caution. The really surprising thing is not the uptick in English feeling, but its modesty. Despite almost two decades of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the independence referendum, the prospect of English-only votes and the rise of nationalist populism across the wider West, the English remain remarkably relaxed about their nationhood. The latest Future of England survey, published in April 2014, showed that as many respondents described themselves primarily as British as English; little different from previous years. “We do not see a marked decrease in Britishness and matched increase in Englishness,” concluded the researchers.
Britain: made in England
Moreover, Britain’s union is a delicate balancing act. It is the only stable, rich country of its kind: one in which the population of one constituent part is much greater than all the others put together. California is 12% of the United States, Bavaria is 16% of Germany, Ontario is 38% of Canada, but England is 84% of the United Kingdom. The graveyard of nation states—the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia—points to the perils of being a country dominated by one part. The United Kingdom has survived against the odds because the English have subsumed some of their identity and all of their institutions into those of the whole: Britain. They have forgone an independent political system of their own that might destabilise the common, British one.
Their prize has been dominance. If foreigners often use “English” when they mean “British” (in 2013 Scots groaned when the New York Times hailed Glasgow-born Andy Murray as an English tennis champion), that is because Britain bears so many English traits. Its institutions, from Parliament to its diplomatic corps and the BBC, remain dominated by Sassenachs. Westminster, the 900-year-old home of English government, houses its legislature. More often than not, it is English politicians who decide when and where Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish soldiers, sailors and airmen are deployed. When the writer after whom this column is named described the unspoken codes and rules of the British state, he called them “the English constitution”.
This strikes your columnist as a pretty happy state of affairs, one worth trying to preserve—through restraint in the EVEL debate, on the part of Mr Cameron. To be English is to have influence, to dominate a larger political body and yet have a separate cultural identity. If the price of this is constitutional asymmetry, that is a reasonable trade-off.