For reasons that our readers won’t expect us to explain, there’s been debate during recent weeks about Englishness. It has coincided with this Conservative Government announcing the intended removal of a constitutional safeguard for England that another Conservative Government introduced.
English votes for English laws was introduced by the Cameron Government after 2015, because it had been promised in the Tory election general manifesto of that year. David Cameron felt a special obligation to implement EVEL, as it is called, because he had re-pledged it in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 – under pressure from Conservative MPs.
They had objected to Cameron’s commitment, with the then leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, under guidance from Gordon Brown, to “the vow”: that’s to say, to further devolution for Scotland without compensating action for England.
EVEL had also featured in the 2010 Conservative general election manifesto, but the exigencies of coalition had halted its delivery – and handed it over to a commission, chaired by Sir William McKay. It concluded that Commons decisions with a “separate and distinct effect” for England should “normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs sitting for constituencies in England”.
Which returns us to the Cameron Government’s introduction of it in the form that now exists – a tortuous one, whereby the Speaker judges which parts of a Bill relate to England only (or to England and Wales; or to England, Wales and Northern Ireland), and the agreement of a Grand Committee is then required to those parts.
(The committee consists of English MPs only, in the first case; English and Welsh MPs in the second; and English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs in the last).
A Constitution Unit report, issued a year after EVEL’s introduction, suggested that it was no bad thing, in some respects, didn’t go far enough. That at least is our reading of its conclusions, which rejected the main criticism that had been levelled at EVEL before its introduction – namely, that it would create two classes of MP.
“The question of whether EVEL has created two classes of MP is more a question of judgement than fact,” the report declared. It went on to say that another complaint “has been less widely aired, but we believe deserves greater attention: that EVEL has so far failed to facilitate expression of England’s ‘voice’”.
“Given that EVEL has done little to facilitate the expression of English voice, we suggest that alternative mechanisms, outside the legislative process, should be considered – for example a cross-cutting English Affairs select committee”.
Michael Gove’s recent declaration that “it’s a fundamental principle that all constituent parts of the United Kingdom should be equally represented in Parliament” should be seen in the light of all the above – and, of course, in that of the development that has provoked it: the continuing threat of Scottish independence.
The heart of the matter is that the New Labour devolution settlement has weakened the constitution, and the Conservative Party swings first one way on its tightrope, and then the other, in an attempt to maintain a balance. First, Tory MPs revolt, and EVEL is introduced to placate them; then, Scottish independence looms again, and the removal of EVEL is floated to appease Scottish public opinion.
The Scots voted by a substantial majority for devolution, and the present settlement is here to stay, at least for the moment – which makes any general election in which England returns a Conservative majority but the UK as a whole doesn’t potentially problematic.
Any attempt to correct the mess that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown created immediately raises the problem of the size of England. An English Parliament would leave a huge tail wagging a diminished dog: in other words, a UK Parliament dealing largely with defence, foreign and security policy only; and a potential English First Minister who isn’t necessarily the Prime Minister.
That formula sounds more likely to speed the end of the Union rather than secure its future. Labour’s solution in government was regional assemblies. The North-East referendum buried that idea. There is no evidence of public support for it. For a solution, the Conservatives must look elsewhere.
We wrote above that devolution has weakened our constitutional settlement but, for all its enduring power and adaptability, it hasn’t been as strong as Tories seem to think it is for quite some time.
A unitary state is one thing; that state’s over-centralisation another. One way in which Conservatives can think their way into the relative centralisation of Britain, compared to some of its European neighbours, is to ponder uniform benefit rates across the country as a whole. Since living standards vary throughout the UK, shouldn’t benefits usually do so too?
But if there were to be more local variety in spending, wouldn’t local variety in taxation necessarily follow? As a starter, why shouldn’t Ben Houchen, Andy Street and the other metro mayors be able to retain a share of say, airport passenger duty, vehicle excise duty, and of VAT?
More widely, it is impossible to believe that Whitehall knows better how to deliver better skills, net zero, industrial strategy, integrated transport or a mass of this Government’s aims than those closer to the ground do.
If England is to have a formal voice in Parliament, might it not best be heard in the Lords, in which representatives of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom could question, but not ultimately frusrate, the decisions of the Commons? England’s representatives in such a dispensation would be senior figures from local government, whose mandate wouldn’t clash with that of MPs.
Elsewhere, the solution to the devolution problem doesn’t lie only with seizing power from above, so to speak – in the form of such initiatives as the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. It lies also with seizing power from below. For example, why shouldn’t Scottish councils to have the power to set business rates-free zones and rebuild local railways, as Douglas Ross has proposed?
Rather than lurch from one expedient to another – first introducing EVEL; then threatening it – the Government needs to apply a bit of strategic thinking to the constitution. We hope that the long-delayed levelling up White Paper may produce it.
If it doesn’t, there will be no localism worth the name; the danger to the unity of the United Kingdom is likely to grow rather than diminish, and England will be less well represented in our institutional arrangements than it should be. And all that talk about Englishness will return to little effect next year, when the England football team faces the World Cup – and, God willing, no penalty shoot-outs.