EVEL is not the answer to the West Lothian question
Ever since Tam Dalyell posed what has become known as the West Lothian question in 1977, the bogeyman of asymmetric devolution has haunted the Westminster parliament. It is perhaps surprising that it has taken so long after devolution for the issue to come to a head.
But having taken so long to be addressed at all, it is disturbing that something that amounts to a major constitutional change for the whole of the UK can be brought about simply by a change to standing orders at Westminster.
Whereas the format of Scottish devolution involved years of discussion before the referendum on whether it would happen, what answers to English devolution appears to have involved little more than jottings on a post-it note.
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During the debate on English votes for English laws (EVEL), Conservative MP Chris Pincher talked of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments being “foisted” on the UK by Labour. But arguably, it is England’s constitutional issues that are now being foisted on the rest of the UK.
Living in England at the time of last year’s independence referendum, I had high hopes that the aspirational debate around what kind of state we wanted would have a trickle-down effect to provoke much-needed constitutional reform in England. For a short while it seemed that might be the case.
From its confusing multi-tiered system of local government – all elected by a first-past-the-post system that leads to many single-party authorities that are unlikely to ever change control – to the centralised and old-fashioned UK institutions of Westminster and the House of Lords, England badly needs political reform.
Sadly, rather than public consultation about how England and the UK’s institutions could be made more modern and democratic, what we have seen so far is a randomised devolving of powers to hastily-formed regional groupings without public mandate and EVEL. Ad hoc collaborations and constitutional quick fixes is no way to run a country.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have clearly defined rules about which matters are devolved and which are reserved. A situation where whether particular MPs are allowed to vote or not is decided on a case-by-case basis by the Speaker of the House is clearly open to, at best, subjective individual interpretation, at worst, party-political manipulation. We see that already in suggestions that UK airport expansion should be subject to EVEL, despite air transport being a reserved matter, and one that affects businesses and travellers across all four nations.
One cannot help but be suspicious that this is an issue, not about unequal devolution, but about ensuring any future Labour government will be ineffective unless it secures an outright majority of English seats. Even more than was already the case, it makes whoever wins the most seats in England the only thing that counts at Westminster.
Cardiff MP Kevin Brennan’s question about whether MPs could now have different coloured passes to identify what ‘class’ they were may have been facetious, but it does seem that English MPs have got the access-all-areas pass to the gig while others are going to be left in the audience.
EVEL is not the answer to the West Lothian question. Post-EVEL, we will still have asymmetric devolution, just a different sort. To balance the devolved powers of the other three nations, England needs its own parliament, but Westminster isn’t it.