Wednesday, September 13, 2006

English votes for English laws?

The West Lothian question, aka the English question, has been raising its head lately. It’s said to be an unfair anomaly that, for instance, a Scottish MP can vote on education policy for England but an English MP cannot vote on Scottish education. It’s argued that, for the sake of logic and fairness, Scottish MPs should lose their voting rights on England-only matters.

(This England-vs-Scotland presentation oversimplifies, as there are different degrees of devolution to different parts of the UK. The consistent, principled way of putting it would be to propose that an MP may vote on a bill if and only if either (a) it directly applies to his/her constituency or (b) it covers a policy area that, for his/her constituency, is the business of the UK Parliament. The principle is about symmetry and reciprocity rather than national/regional disagreements. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick with discussing the proposal as it’s usually presented: ‘English votes for English laws’, or EVEL.)

Much of the Conservative support for, and Labour opposition to, EVEL arises from the certainty that it would weaken Labour’s parliamentary voting strength. But regardless of such understandable yet ignoble motives, there is a fair point to the proposal – and also serious problems. Here are a few.

Incoherence of government

A major concern is what would happen under this system if one party had a UK majority in the House of Commons but another party had a majority of English MPs (in practice, Labour and the Conservatives respectively). The government would be able to pass its bills in areas such as economic policy, defence and social security but not in areas such as health, education and transport. This means that in the latter areas, the official ‘government’ can’t really govern; instead the opposition can drive through a substantial legislative programme with bill after bill in these areas. But all the while, the civil servants charged with implementing these laws are answerable to their ministers, who are of the official governing party.

Neither party is truly in government here, as far as these policy areas are concerned; nor is there an unofficial quasi-coalition of the two. Ministers, with their executive powers, would have a political incentive to obstruct the passage of ‘opposition’ bills and to thwart the effective working of such laws once passed. In turn, the opposition would have a political incentive to saddle ministers with populist but unworkable laws to operate. In fact, there is no coherent government here. Policy stagnation would be the least bad plausible outcome; more likely is the replacement of policymaking with politicking.

English ministers for English departments

Some opponents of EVEL have assumed that it would require preventing Scottish MPs from holding ministerial posts in areas where powers had been devolved to Scotland. Supporters of EVEL mostly reply that this would be a separate issue and there’d be no need for it to happen. The unappetising consequence of this would be that a Scottish MP who was Education Secretary would have to take his or her bills to parliament not as an equal, not as a participant in the legislative process, but as a supplicant.

But more importantly, for the EVEL lobby to take this position requires abandoning their prized principle. If there is an unfair anomaly with legislative powers, there is, by identical logic, an equivalent problem with executive powers. Devolution did not just create the Scottish Parliament as a voting body; it also created a Scottish Executive, consisting of ministers with powers of their own. At Westminster, there are likewise ministers with executive powers. In both cases, ministers are drawn from the legislature.

So the equivalent anomaly is: why should a Scottish MP be able to become Secretary of State for Education and wield executive power over English policy, while an English MP cannot hold a position of executive power over Scottish policy?

The case for ‘English ministers for English departments’ is thus exactly as strong as that for EVEL. (Note that as well as covering specific areas such as health, education and transport, it would also, by insuperable logic, cover the posts of Chancellor and Prime Minister, whose responsibilities range across all departments. This view has some support in the Shadow Cabinet.)

This would end the democratic equality of parliamentary government: if, on grounds of geography, certain MPs are barred from holding high office – and certain voters barred from electing someone who might hold high office, or even standing themselves – then the union will lose legitimacy. If the English tell the Scots (and the Welsh) that they can never aspire to lead their country, will they not instead aspire to form a country that they can lead?

We are not talking about mere legislative chambers; the composition of the Commons determines the identity of the Prime Minister, and the other ministers are then appointed from the ranks of those elected to Parliament (similarly in Scotland). The executive is thus inescapably rooted in the legislature. The Commons, through its role in determining the government and through the equality of its members, is the vital organ that democratically binds the executive to the people of the UK – the whole UK. It is not just a glorified voting machine with detachable parts.

EVEL, as well as the logically concomitant ministerial restrictions, would destroy the equality of MPs, and thus destroy the democratic character of the parliamentary link between executive and electorate. As William Hague put it in 2000: “Parliament is the essential and definitive link between citizen and government and should remain the institution at the heart of the nation's democratic system”. We should not let EVEL into our heart.

The confidence dilemma

But there’s also a truly fatal flaw hiding in the EVEL idea. Say that a government has a UK Commons majority but the opposition has an English majority. The government proposes an education bill, which – applying only to England – is defeated. Suppose the government then tables a motion along the lines of ‘This House has confidence in the government’s education bill’. If a government loses a confidence vote, it falls, so this should surely be a national and hence whole-Commons matter. But if so, then the government could bypass the whole point of EVEL by putting forward such confidence motions every time it loses a vote under the system.

Alternatively, if EVEL still applied in such cases on the basis that education policy was an English matter, then the opposition could at any time table a no-confidence motion couched in terms such as ‘This House has no confidence in the education policy of the government’ and bring down the majority government. For the UK government to be toppled by a parliamentary minority would be obscene. It’s true that either of these procedural tactics would be devious and underhand, but we can hardly rely on party business managers to refrain from such partisan tricks. The dilemma is inescapable: EVEL would destroy either itself or parliamentary democracy.

In sum, I share the former Conservative Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind’s attitude to EVEL: “That would be a nationalist solution to a unionist problem. It would weaken rather than strengthen Britain.”

Rather than insist on EVEL as a matter of logical symmetry and never mind the consequences, or point at the practical problems and assume that the issue can thus be ignored, we do need to acknowledge that there is a real source of discomfort here. And it will be tackled, sooner or later, well or badly. We should find a less damaging way to address it. I think there’s good scope for a compromise between those wanting a new post-devolution settlement and those fearful for the unity and efficacy of the Commons and the government. I’ll post my idea tomorrow. [Update: see here.]


Brian Hogan (twitter: @brianjameshogan) said...

This is really interesting. A couple of comments though-
I don't think the confidence question is necessarily a fatal flaw, at least not for the reasons you suggest. The convention is that the PM must resign if the House no longer has confidence in him.

In neither of your two scenarios would this be the case, as the House would only be voting on one aspect of Government policy. A vote that did not command a majority of the house, or that related only to a single bill or policy, would not be treated as a loss of confidence in the PM himself (and could be easily rectified by an immediate vote on that single question).

Secondly, the logic of EVEL does not require that the PM or Chancellor could never be Scottish. The point of EVEL is that a Scottish MP should not vote on a matter that is *completely limited* in scope to England; not that a Scottish MP can't vote on a matter that has *less* relevance to England than Scotland. Only votes (or positions) that relate exclusively to England are limited to English MPs by the basic logic of EVEL; thus, plainly not PM or Chancellor.

Ted said...

Some very interesting thoughts. What this suggests to me is that an informal EVEL arrangement is likely to get confusing. But surely that would not be true of something more genuinely federal? If there was a clear split of UK powers retained by Parliament and devolved powers to an English body, mirroring those to Scotland, NI and Wales, that could work.

Two problems. First, England is such a large part of the UK. I still think this is not insurmountable. An example rarely quoted is Weimar Germany, where Prussia was over 60% of the whole. Obvious reasons this is not a popular precedent, but in this respect it worked OK. Prussia had a stable SPD government for most of the time.

The other point is that there will be no popular appetite for hundreds more politicians and expensive buildings. We have to make this a low cost change and use the existing MPs.

Anonymous said...

You mention democracy several times, yet having Scottish (Labour) MP's dictate a policy applicable to England only is clearly undemocratic. More so when English MP's cannot do the same for Scottish legislation.

How is that democratic and fair ?

The root of this is that a light has been shone on the Midlothian question and Labour and its apperatchiks are furiously rubbishing it from ever possible angle, knowing that Labour are effectively dead in the water.

The English people have woken up to what has been going on, Pandora's box is open, and as a Scot I sincerely wish that England and its people get the changes they deserve and some equality in the devolution process.

Blair dodged the question last time round in self preservation, but not this time I'm afraid.