Given Tuesday’s Commons debate and vote against the Government (also reported in a Guardian liveblog here), I thought it was worth reposting here an amended version of a short piece which appeared earlier on the Democratic Audit blog.
Chris Grayling’s proposals for English votes for English laws (EVEL) should not be much of a surprise. They are very largely a straightforward implementation of ‘option 3’ set out by the party in the December 2014 Command paper, endorsed in a speech by William Hague in February 2015 and set out in the party’s election manifesto. The Conservatives will claim credit for having done what they said they would.
In doing so, they have not addressed some key problems. First, they have abandoned the McKay Commission’s test of provisions having a ‘separate and distinct’ effect for England. That had the merit of principle. Instead, the test is whether a provision ‘relates exclusively’ to England. But, second, that test is mis-applied; provisions may relate to England in a legal sense but have a major effect on devolved governments, whether through the Barnett formula and consequential changes in funding, or their effects across a border (a major issue for Wales if not Scotland). This means, third, that the problems arising from a piecemeal approach to constitutional change have been maintained and aggravated, not resolved.
There are ways of implementing EVEL that would give England the distinct voice in the Union that it badly needs. That needs a much further-reaching reconstruction of how legislation works, and perhaps the machinery of government too. We canvassed these issues in the recent Bingham Centre devolution review, and set out a path to achieve it. (The report can be downloaded here.) Instead, the Conservatives have ticked a box on their to-do list, but stored up yet further constitutional problems for the future. To work properly, EVEL needs to form part of a much broader programme of reform in Westminster and Whitehall, not be a one-off revision to Commons procedures.
This post also appears as a guest post on the Centre on Constitutional Change blog here, the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog here, and the Institute of Welsh Affairs blog ClickonWales here.
The impact of the Scottish independence referendum has been wide-ranging. It raises a number of questions about how the UK works as a whole and its territorial constitution, as well as ones about Scotland. But for all the importance and urgency of these issues, they have not yet been subject to any wide-ranging or sustained scrutiny. A new report from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, available here, seeks to change that and look at what issues the UK as a whole will need to address in the coming months and years. The review commission has been chaired by Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC, and its membership is here and remit is set out here.
The Commission’s starting point was to consider the implications of the piecemeal, ad hoc approach to devolution taken so far. Its view is that this has reached the end of its road. The knock-on effects of the Smith Commission proposals for Scotland mean that this now creates serious constitutional difficulties beyond Scotland. A more systematic view, considering the UK as a whole, is badly needed.
The first big recommendation to address that is a Charter of the Union, to be passed as a Westminster statute with consent from the devolved legislatures, and setting out key principles for the working of a devolved union. These draw on what already applies – they include such principles as respect for democracy, the rule of law, autonomy of each government and comity and respect for each other in their dealings with each other. Subsidiarity and social solidarity are also key principles for the Charter of the Union.
It’s intriguing to see various senior figures from the New Labour era call for a return to something much more like new Labour to revive the Labour Party. Those figures seem to overlook how responsible New Labour’s politics and legacy are for the mess Labour now finds itself in. (On the nature of that mess, I agree with quite a lot of what Paul Mason says here; it is very clearly a structural problem caused by the collapse of an electoral coalition, not just a question of policy detail or leadership.)
New Labour helped create the mess, at least in its territorial dimension, in two particular ways. First, its political economy depended on getting London to generate large tax revenues to pay for redistributive benefits and much of public services in the rest of the UK, and satisfying those already owning property in London through a property boom. This has left a lasting and damaging legacy by creating or at least magnifying huge inequalities and resentments arising from different regional economies and levels of prosperity. (In technical terms, it sought to use a huge vertical fiscal imbalance to redress horizontal inequalities. What actually happened was that those horizontal inequalities increased.)
This post also appears on the Constitution Unit’s blog, here. Constitution-unit.com has a number of other election-related posts which are well worth reading.
It is hard to think of a general election that has ever been so freighted with questions about the UK’s territorial constitution. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the outcome of the 2015 election, and actions of the government that takes office after it, will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup. This post considers what the manifestos tell us about what the various parties propose to do and how they propose to do it, when it comes to the reshaping of devolution arrangements across the UK, and then discusses some of the issues that will loom larger after 7 May.
The pro-UK parties
The 2015 manifestos contain a welter of devolution-related commitments. Those in the three pro-UK parties (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) are all strikingly similar, though not identical. For Scotland, all commit to implementing the Smith Commission’s recommendations, and to retaining the Barnett formula. (Interestingly, they do not commit to the UK Government’s white paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, raising the possibility they could scrape off some of the barnacles that paper puts on the Smith proposals). Labour want to go further in a ‘Home Rule bill’ in unspecified ways, though it appears that wider scope for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on welfare matters is key to it. These commitments rather resemble those made by the same three parties in 2010 about the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations, though with Labour somewhat breaking ranks with the two governing parties.
There is also similarity when it comes to Northern Ireland: endorsement of the peace process and commitments to support it, along with the economic rebalancing package agreed as part of December’s Stormont House Agreement. For Conservatives and Lib Dems, this includes support for sustainable public finances, welfare reform and corporation tax devolution subject to adequate progress being made on financial matters. Labour’s commitments appear to embrace similar policies, but are confusingly worded. They say they will: Continue reading
Filed under Conservatives, English questions, Labour, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru, Scotland, SNP, UK elections, Wales, Westminster
For the last few months, I’ve been working with the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law on a major inquiry into devolution and how it should develop, from the point of the UK as a whole. The starting point has been constitutional: what sort of constitutional system has emerged given the fragmented nature of the process of devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and across England. Our committee has been chaired by Professor Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC, Director of the Bingham Centre, and includes such figures as Professor Linda Colley, Gerald Holtham, Sir Maurice Kay, John Kay and Philip Stephens of the FT. (Full details of the committee are here.) Adam Tomkins and I have acted as advisers to the committee.
We’ll be publishing the report on 20 May, with a launch at Middle Temple Hall, and have a number of important recommendations for how the UK should work which we hope will shape the actions of the incoming UK Government, whatever political complexion it may have. Key to these is the need now to think about devolution as affecting the UK as a whole, and what the nature of that Union is – not unitary, but not federal either. No new government can afford to ignore these issues, or fail to try to tackle them.
UPDATE: Anyone wanting to come to the launch should email Sandra Homewood on s.homewood[at]binghamcentre.biicl.org to confirm their attendance.
UPDATE, 21 May: The report, A Constitutional Crossroads: Ways forward for the United Kingdom, can now be downloaded here as a PDF file.
I’ve just added a page explaining the West Lothian question to those on the blog. It can be accessed through the links at the top of the page, or HERE.
One point often overlooked, which I discuss there, is the extent to which the anomaly of the West Lothian question is made worse by problems of mis-representation, which are fuelled by using the First-past-the-post electoral system. The result is that Labour is disproportionately strong (compared to its share of the vote) in Scotland and Wales, as are both Conservatives and (somewhat less so) Labour in England. The Lib Dems in England, the SNP and Conservatives in Scotland, and Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems in Wales are the main losers.
There are arguments on both sides of the question of proportional representation, but its absence creates these anomalies that mean Labour has far more Scottish and Welsh MPs than its share of the vote justifies, and the Conservatives more English MPs. A more equitable electoral system would reduce that disparity, and the degree to which the West Lothian question is played up or down for party advantage.
I’ll be saying something further about the possible solutions to the West Lothian question in the next few days.
My article on the UK Government’s announcement on the West Lothian question – formally, the ‘Commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons’ – was published in Wednesday’s Scotsman. The UK Government’s Commons written statement on the Commission can be found here, and my article (slightly edited for publication) is on the Scotsman‘s website here, and the Constitution Unit’s blog here.
There’s been quite strong media interest in the Commission: I’ve been quoted in stories for the Guardian, here, and the Western Mail, here. I’ve also recorded an interview for this week’s BBC Wales programme Dragon’s Eye about it.