A couple of weeks ago, I looked at what Conservative MPs and advisers thought about the Government’s Union policy, such as it is. One feature was the broad support for scrapping ‘English Votes for English Laws’, or EVEL.
This support is not universal. Some strategists are concerned that ministers have simply de-activated a potentially potent weapon against a future Labour government. Others are concerned that leaving the West Lothian Question unanswered will only encourage those advocating even worse solutions, such as an English Parliament.
And that is not forgetting the not inconsiderable danger that a future Parliament may have to confront the question in a much more urgent fashion if the situation EVEL was supposed to guard against – a British government without a majority in England – ever arises.
However, the real virtue of EVEL is perhaps best illustrated by the nature of the case made by its critics. I previously quoted those concerned that it undermined Westminster’s ‘universal mandate’. But since then Andrew Bowie, in a piece for this site, has provided a full-length and eloquent example of what I mean.
Some of his arguments are more persuasive, others less. The idea that pre-1972 Northern Ireland, with its 12 MPs, provides any compelling evidence against the case for EVEL is a stretch, to put it mildly.
Likewise, the claim that it creates “two tier of MP” skates over the fact that it was actually devolution that did that. The West Lothian Question is entirely about the creation of two classes of MP. (Not to mention the historical operation of the Scottish Grand Committee…)
As for the claim that there are no such things as ‘England-only laws’, that is a much more compelling argument for reform of the Barnett Formula than it is against EVEL.
However, it is significant that until the debate around the UK Internal Market Act, it tended to be only in debates on EVEL that this sort of argument was ever deployed. One of the most refreshing things about the debates on its introduction was hearing Labour MPs from Wales, previously content to incant about the importance of “more powers”, suddenly stressing the inter-connected nature of our United Kingdom.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it only works if it cuts both ways. If Welsh and Scottish MPs should get to vote on English legislation because of the possible it might have on their constituencies, why should English MPs not get to vote on Scottish and Welsh legislation on the same basis? You don’t need to look very hard to find, for example, MPs for seats on the Welsh border with long-running concerns about the impact of decisions made in Cardiff Bay on their local NHS services, or the fact that the Welsh Government has taken control of passenger railway services that serve English routes.
Nor is it impossible to imagine, as devolution continues to metastasise, the profound impact that different tax or regulatory regimes could have on border communities.
Ministers have taken a first, tentative step towards this line of thinking with the UK Internal Market Act, and are teeing up the next with the upcoming Subsidy Control Bill (which has been dubbed ‘Ukima II’ by some insiders). But some high-profile champions of scrapping of EVEL also opposed Ukima and are set against the sort of ‘muscular unionism’ it embodies.
Perhaps Mark McInnes, the Prime Minister’s incoming adviser on the Union, can impose some coherence. But until then, the moral unionist case against EVEL will ring hollow. It cannot be seriously argued that asking Scottish and Welsh MPs to crack on with some casework whilst English legislation is debated poses a more serious threat to the Union than creating separate legislatures and an entire devocrat class to produce Scottish and Welsh legislation in isolation.