English-only votes set Britain on the path to federalisation—or break-up

English-only votes set Britain on the path to federalisation—or break-up

English-only votes set Britain on the path to federalisation—or break-up

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.


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