The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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Why ‘English votes’ is the wrong response to the Scottish referendum

28th October 2014

Former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies predicted in 1999 that devolution would prove to be “a process, not an event”, and the aftermath of the Scottish referendum proves again the accuracy of that assessment. The idea of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) at Westminster has been put forward by the Prime Minister, as a solution not only to the long-standing ‘West Lothian Question’, but also the more fundamental ‘English Question’, which asks how to give voice to the opinions of the English just as devolution allowed for the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish. Unlike most other constitutional debates, the English Question shows real potential for public resonance: the promise of further powers to Scotland will surely only strengthen the feeling that devolution has left England behind. However, EVEL is the wrong answer to the English Question, for three reasons.

The first is the difficulty of deciding what constitutes an ‘English’ law. A law with direct impact only in England? But this definition crucially disregards the indirect effects of such legislation elsewhere within the Union, the foremost of which is financial. The much-maligned ‘Barnett formula’ stipulates that each extra pound of spending in England must result in a certain proportional extra number of pence allocated to the devolved areas according to population size relative to England. Legislation ‘only’ affecting England therefore has knock-on effects for the devolved executives’ budgets whenever it involves changes to spending. ‘English’ laws are, consequently, an illusion, being instead tied to devolved policy.

To untangle this knot requires renegotiation of the devolutionary financial settlement. Perhaps the least acrimonious way to do so would be to give greater financial autonomy to regions within England as well as to Wales and Northern Ireland, similar to that Scotland is set to receive (over income tax particularly). A recent ResPublica report provided a blueprint for how this could be achieved in Greater Manchester. This way at least, no one could claim that a ‘stitch-up’ from the centre was keeping their region poor while others benefitted. Yet if this first step were taken, why not pursue this line of thinking further and devolve greater executive and legislative capacity to the regions too? This would have the additional advantage of broadly mitigating the West Lothian Question, as Westminster’s declining influence reduces the practical impact of ‘Scottish’ votes on decisions over ‘English’ laws.

The second problem with EVEL is theoretical. Is there really anything as coherent as the notional ‘English voice’ that needs strengthening within Parliament? Currently, 82 per cent of constituencies are within England. So if even two thirds of MPs representing English constituencies agreed on a matter, they would form a majority within Parliament. In other words, if there really were a single identifiable ‘English voice’, we would already be hearing it given England’s numerical dominance.

Devolution sprang largely out of frustration in Scotland at this English Parliamentary dominance and a feeling that the devolved regions could not control their own destinies within the Westminster system. If English MPs so chose, that control would be available to them in a moment. The English Question’s persistence in spite of this thus suggests that it cannot be solved by magnifying an illusory single ‘English’ voice, but only through devolving power downwards to regions, local authorities and communities, in order to reconnect people with political decision-making as has occurred in the devolved regions – for it is the desire for a similar connection which seems to lie at the heart of the persistence of calls for the ‘English voice’ to be strengthened.

This dovetails into the third reason, which is that proposing EVEL misinterprets the meaning of the referendum outcome. The choice by many previously disengaged electors to vote Yes reflected not nationalism on their part (since the SNP has long provided an outlet for such sentiment) but instead dissatisfaction with a system of government which leaves people feeling powerless to influence decisions which affect their lives. Independence was pitched by Alex Salmond as a chance for Scotland to take control of its own destiny, a message with appeal not only to modern-day William Wallaces but also to voters who feel that their votes make no difference.

Yet that feeling of impotence is not restricted to Scotland; it is a malaise shared across the UK. But EVEL does nothing to counteract this: it is a reform that locates both problem and solution within Westminster. Instead, the over-centralisation of the political system, making it unresponsive to the voices of the people it purports to represent, should be reversed, giving people responsibility to shape their local communities into places which respond to their needs and aspirations.

The suggestion of EVEL therefore not only faces practical difficulties, but also fundamentally misunderstands what the referendum divulged about the state of the Union. The result revealed a sense of a shared British identity, but also a conviction that the strongly-felt and often divergent opinions of the constituent parts of the Union should be given freer rein. For this lesson to be learned properly, greater localism across the Union, including within England, must accompany the forward movement of devolution in Scotland – for it is only in this way that the English Question will finally be resolved.

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