Last week the Government published its proposals to implement a system of ‘English votes for English laws’ to cries of outrage from various opponents, including the Scottish National Party. That this measure should have come as a surprise to anyone, is beyond my comprehension. It was a principal feature of the election campaign, from my own experience as a candidate, it was one of the most commonly discussed issues on the doorsteps – and the most popular.
The Government has been accused of putting the Union with Scotland at further risk by implementing the measure. On the contrary, the Scots already enjoy these powers, granting them to England will address one of the principal complaints that the English have about the Union.
The opposition of the Scottish Nationalists is all the more surprising given their stance in the last parliament: they took the principled view that English measures, on health and education for instance, where the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood determines these matters for Scotland, were none of their business, and they voluntarily abstained from voting on these questions. They have failed to explain why they have changed their minds in this Parliament.
This change of mind makes the measure necessary. Whilst Labour would never have agreed to a voluntary abstention when they dominated the Scottish parliamentary seats, now that they hold only one, their approach is of little consequence.
I have used this column before to express my view that a voluntary arrangement would be preferable. This was, after all, the approach that the Ulster Unionists adopted, when the old Stormont parliament operated. I do not like the notion of different classes of MP, some of which may, or may not vote, on particular matters. I think it would have been preferable to voluntarily have adopted the convention that MPs representing Scottish seats simply abstain on purely English matters. The abandonment by the Nationalists of their previous stance however, makes a formal change in the Standing Orders of the Commons (the nearest thing we have to a written constitution) necessary.
The issue is not new. We have wrestled with it ever since it was first identified by Sir Tam Dalyell of the Binns during the original devolution debates of the mid nineteen seventies. It was characterised as the ‘West Lothian question’ because that was the parliamentary seat that he represented. In his principled opposition to the prospect of a Scottish assembly he pointed out the absurdity of allowing the member for West Lothian at Westminster to vote for measures that wouldn’t affect his own constituents, but only those of English constituencies.
This theoretical possibility became real during the years of the Blair Government when English Education and Health reforms – and also the Hunting Act – where the support of Labours MPs in Scotland turned out to be critical in securing majorities for the measures, which would not have passed had they had to rely only on the English seats which were to be affected.
This is an outrageous unfairness to English voters. It has been crying out to be addressed for years. The determination to do so now, after an election with a clear manifesto commitment, is a way of cementing the Union by removing a grievance felt by the English – which, after all, are the largest part of it.