As we have noted many times, the Blair devolution settlement was a miserable failure. It was meant to strengthen the Union by giving something to those who might otherwise try to break it up – instead, Scottish nationalism was strengthened rather than dissipated, and the voters of England became increasingly resentful of the financial and political unfairness of the new setup.
Therefore there is a responsibility to set things right – and an electoral opportunity in giving justice to England. The ConservativeHome Manifesto proposed that the way to settle things once and for all is to give Devo Max to all the Home Nations – giving each devolved control of the bulk of its own laws, tax and spending.
In December, William Hague was given the job of studying four options on EVEL and deciding which the Conservative Party would adopt. Today he is reporting back – Sir Malcolm Rifkind has made the case for his preferred answer on this site.
Unfortunately, the proposal is completely unsatisfactory. Instead of answering the problems of insufficient and unequal devolution with a system of full and fair devolution for all component parts of the UK, Hague has opted for a fudge.
Under ‘Option 3′, as it’s known, English MPs would be able to review the parts of Bills affecting England at Committee Stage and would then have the chance to veto them before they are allowed to be passed into law. It would be an increase of power for England over its own affairs, but it is merely a negative power to block rather than a positive power to legislate.
To appreciate the problem, consider the following scenario. Labour, with a majority in the UK as a whole but not in England, propose a law to restrict bin collections to once a month. English MPs could block such a law from applying to England. But if the Conservatives, with a majority of English MPs, then tried to introduce a Bill guaranteeing weekly bin collections in England, Labour would be allowed to use its UK-wide majority, including Scottish and Welsh MPs, to vote the law down – even though it would not affect those MPs’ constituents. In short, England would still not be self-governing.
This isn’t a fantasy scenario – Labour are openly hostile to the idea of true English Votes on English Laws, a hostility born of the fact that it would deny them powers which they would otherwise use. The SNP and Plaid Cymru have made clear that they intend to vote on English matters such as health in future. Hague’s proposal would leave them the opportunity to do so.
It should be obvious that this isn’t good enough. England deserves democratic self-government, just as the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish do. Fudging devolution in the late 1990s brought the Union to the brink of destruction – fudging it again in 2015 won’t do anything to preserve it from nationalist ambitions north of the border or growing resentment to its south.
Not only is this a risk to the Union, and an injustice to English voters, but it is a risk for the Conservative Party. I’ve long been amazed that UKIP haven’t already jumped on the issue and made it their own – time is running out for us to get there first.