The 2015 General Election left us with a new balance of power that has the potential to massively transform the way British politics works and fundamentally reshape the relationship between Westminster and the nations and regions of the UK. This week the Scottish National Party, empowered by their election success and the strength of their contingent of MPs at Westminster, appears to have landed a significant blow in favour of devolved democracy by forcing the government to postpone a vote on its proposed reform of the Hunting Act, a law which applies only in England and Wales and does not directly affect Scotland. It is precisely the kind of law that David Cameron is thinking of with his plan for ‘English Votes for English Laws’ which he claims would deliver a measure of devolution for England and finally address the ‘West Lothian question’.
Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP argue that such a proposal would leave Scottish MPs as ‘second class’ parliamentarians, unequal to their counterparts from England, and so undermining their authority in Westminster and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. But whilst it might look bad for Scotland, for the rest of the UK, and in particular England, the prospect of English Votes for English Laws is much worse. Scotland already has a devolved parliament with substantial powers over Scottish affairs and they may soon have ‘Home Rule’, meaning further powers including over taxation. The extent of devolution to other parts of the UK is limited at best, and in England it is nothing but a fantasy.
As English Votes for English Laws might leave Scottish MPs at Westminster in an inferior position, it is the voters in England who will find themselves short-changed by a proposal which pretends to offer English devolution, but in reality preserves the centralisation of power in a super-parliament at Westminster which will be supposed to act as both a parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom whilst simultaneously taking on the role of a devolved parliament, legislating for England alone. Whilst on the surface we could argue that there is no direct contradiction between these two roles, in practice England and its regions will miss out on having a dedicated legislature with its own MPs which could dedicate their time to devolved English issues (such as fox hunting). Under such an arrangement, the UK parliament at Westminster would be free to focus on areas relevant to the United Kingdom as a whole and its place in the world.
If the Westminster parliament, as it is today, is indeed a parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom, then it is important that all MPs elected there are of equal status and standing. Rather than addressing the democratic imbalance that the process of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not in England has left us with, the English Votes for English Laws plan risks further straining the unity and stability of the UK, and seeking only to counter one inequality with another, rather than removing the inequalities inherent in a system of asymmetric devolution, and replacing them with a fair and functional system of federalism, where each part of the UK is empowered to determine its own affairs and its own destiny whilst remaining comfortably anchored within the union.
As things stand, the government appears determined to push ahead with its plans and the SNP’s ‘intervention’ in English policy on the Hunting Act is likely to reinforce the determination of those in Westminster who, some argue, merely seek to strengthen their own position in parliament rather than deliver some kind of meaningful democratic settlement for the United Kingdom as a whole. Never before has the need for a serious and thorough overhaul of the UK’s constitutional arrangement been more urgent, and never before has the opportunity offered by federalism been so relevant, offering to deliver clear and democratic institutions and a fair political structure which can both accommodate and fulfil the diverse needs, identities and aspirations of all the peoples of the United Kingdom.
By Robert Jones
Disclaimer: This article expresses the personal views of its author, and may not necessarily reflect the official policies or views of the Federalist Party.