European Affairs

Fallout from Scottish Referendum—The Rise of EVEL (English Votes for English Laws)     Print Email

geoffpaulphoto"It is quite true that the so-called races of Britain feel themselves to be very different from one another. A Scotsman, for instance, does not thank you if you call him an Englishman. You can see the hesitation we feel on this point by the fact that we call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion. Even the differences between north and south England loom large in our own eyes. But somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European.”
From an essay by George Orwell 1941

In a constitutional upheaval unparalleled since Ireland was granted home rule in 1921, the central government in Westminster, represented by the House of Commons and the upper chamber, the House of Lords, is handing over some of the most powerful tools of United Kingdom governance to the parliament of one of its constituent nations, Scotland, to apply in Scotland as its politicians think fit. The other member nations of the UK are England, overwhelmingly the largest with 84 per cent of the total population, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Welsh, Irish and the Scots already have their own national assemblies which control much domestic policy. England's domestic affairs are controlled by the central government at Westminster and are open to vote by any UK Member of Parliament. (Britain, or Great Britain, are nowadays taken to refer only to England, Scotland and Wales.)

Within the next few years, the Scots will be self-governing in almost every respect except defense, foreign policy and immigration. From 2016, Scotland will have the power to set its own rate of income tax and to issue bonds. But Scotland will remain a constituent member of the United Kingdom, returning members of parliament, as now, to sit alongside their colleagues from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As is pointed out by critics of devolution (the name given to the process of handing over power), the Scots could continue to provide UK Prime Ministers.

The many far-reaching concessions agreed by Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government are believed to have influenced the majority of voters in a recent Scottish referendum to vote against a declaration of independence, withdrawal from the United Kingdom (but not surrendering the monarchy) and a bid for European and international recognition as an entity separate from the UK.

However, as far as many English MPs are concerned, there is one very large and irritating fly in the political ointment formulated by Mr. Cameron and his colleagues to soothe the Scots and keep them within the union.  Since England has no assembly of its own and Scottish MPs – of whom there are currently 59 in the 650-member House of Commons - will continue to sit on the Westminster benches, the Scotts will have the freedom to vote on domestic issues affecting only citizens of England in important areas like education and health. English MPs will have no reciprocal right, not being eligible for membership in the Scottish parliament.

Cameron himself is well aware of this anomaly. On the day in September after Scotland voted to stay within the UK, Cameron told reporters: “We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws...requires a decisive answer.” English votes for English laws - or EVEL in the unfortunate acronym now in common use - has been earning increasing support over recent years and has been boosted by the appearance on the scene of the UK Independence Party which, while its appeal is centered on a break with the European Union, of which the UK is a member, has canvased the idea of an independent English parliament.

A “Parliamentary Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons,” noted “a significant level of grievance among the people of England” because of perceived special benefits enjoyed by the Scots politically and economically as a result of devolution. “The current institutional arrangements for making laws for England are seen fairly uniformly across England as wanting, and they need to be modified to establish some form of England-specific procedure for making laws for England...”

As the May 2015 General Election comes closer and, spurred by the Scottish referendum and UKIP snapping at the heels of Cameron's Conservative Party, the issue of how England is to be governed will increasingly move – with Europe and the spectre of limitless immigration from that continent– to the centre of the political debate. There is no question of abandoning devolution and not much prospect any time soon of electoral reform. Constitutional experts warn against allowing only English MPs to vote on English issues and the danger of national division this could create with separate classes of MPs
What does appear to be emerging as a possible solution is some arrangement whereby decisions taken by the UK parliament which have a distinct effect on England would need the consent of a majority of the English MPs, with this being written into the parliamentary statutes.

But, since 100 years of debate have not yet brought about much needed parliamentary reform in the upper chamber, the House of Lords, it is unlikely that the EVEL challenge will be resolved any time soon.

Geoffrey Paul is former Editor-In-Chief of the Jewish Chronicle