After “English votes for English laws” passed, Antony Tucker takes a look at the “the ineptitude and idiocy” of the idea and calls for a completely federal state.
Thursday 22 October 2015 was a dark day for the cause of unionism in the United Kingdom. The Conservatives passed EVEL – an aptly named change in Commons procedure that gives English MPs an effective veto in all “English only” matters. “English votes for English laws” fails to solve the West Lothian Question and will only contribute to the collapse of the United Kingdom. To better govern our nation, we must see the expansion of devolution across England – one based on regionalisation and democracy, rather than muddle, compromise or nationalism.
Labour’s opposition to the plan was well founded and principled – creating a two tier Parliament, with all-powerful English Members and second-rate representatives from the Celtic fringe will only increase the ire and disconnection felt by so many accross the union. Creating a sense of English hegemony in government will only pour fuel on the fires of nationalism, and will still fail to fix our over-centralised, unequal and ineffective state structures.
The idea of “English only” matters is the first point at which the ineptitude and idiocy of EVEL becomes clear; there is simply no such thing. The HS2 rail link will be entirely located in England, as will a new runway in the South East – but these are of strategic importance to the entire nation. EVEL would allow these to be voted down by English MPs, jeopardising economic growth in the rest of the country. Even health and education policy, controlled via devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but by Parliament in England, is of nationwide importance: the health and skills of England’s population cannot be divorced from the good of the entire country.
EVEL will also further galvanise nationalism, both from Ukip and its Scottish equivalent the SNP, who will seek to exploit this division to grab more power for their own purposes. Nationalism is a poison, one which aims to divide the world into a patchwork of tiny, hostile lands. Race and origin, not principles or aspiration, inspire the SNP and Ukip. Pandering to this destructive force helped return David Cameron to Number 10: now with EVEL, he aims to exclude Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland from taking part in debates that define the course of the entire country. Why? Short term popularity, and the fact that so few Tory MPs are elected from outside England – only twelve in 2015. EVEL is not a principled attempt to govern England more fairly; it is a shallow attempt to grab power for the Tories and pervert the governance of the union around their success in England.
But if not EVEL, then what? An answer to the West Lothian Question – the anomaly by which Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs vote on matters in England which an English counterpart would not be able to affect in those countries – is direly needed. The devolution from desperation that the last two decades have created has built a patchwork of unequal institutions across the country, whilst English government is obsessively centralised – to the detriment of democracy and quality of service. Bureaucracy has replaced democracy for too long; from Thatcher’s assault on local government in the 1980s, to the quango boom of the 1990s, to the present day growth of academies and free schools in education, localism has been sidelined.
If England truly is to control its health, education and cultural matters, then EVEL (or an English Parliament) should be rejected in favour of smaller units – the regions of the country. A Welsh Assembly style body in each of these areas, directly elected and funded via an expanded Barnett Formula, would serve the people better than Whitehall and help rebalance the country away from London-centricism. Shifting expenditure and power out of Westminster and into the provinces, as wielded by regional authorities and their governing assemblies will restore the balance within the union and make Britain more democratic.
Those frightened of duplication of responsibilities between the union Parliament, or the cost of an extra tier of administration need not be concerned. A greatly-shrunk Whitehall would merely oversee standards – ensuring the NHS stayed free for all at the point of delivery, for example – and guarantee funding, only handling defence, diplomacy and overall economic policy directly. Equally, savings could be achieved from below by abolishing district councils and establishing unitary authorities across the nation; necessary in the nineteenth century, the car and the Internet have rendered the need to be within a days’ ride of local government an irrelevance.
This helps give regionalisation a real political value, with any party brave enough to embrace it showing a credible way to both “cut red tape” and empower everyone in the country, not simply the City of London and the inhabitants of swing seats who decide the control of the currently all-powerful House of Commons. The separation of powers is vital to maintain a strong democracy with effective institutions – we could learn a great deal from the German federal model, where regional government, united beneath an effective centre, drives prosperity and improves services through local accountability and co-operation between different tiers of administration. Contrast this to Britain, where the unequal powers of the devolved governments, local authorities in England and the national Parliament have only fostered mistrust that threatens to tear our country apart.
Spreading government and economic wealth across England would give the poorer regions – notably those still affected by the Conservatives’ destruction of British industry in the 1980s – a fair say in how services and investment should shape their local areas. On a national scale, a radical move away from Whitehall centralisation and towards a federal United Kingdom will create a country better governed by institutions that are equal and closer to the population. Addressing the West Lothian Question is vital, but neither EVEL nor an English Parliament will help fix our broken union. The time is here and the need is great for a Federal United Kingdom – the only downside is the acronym.