Scotland’s Referendum and Why ‘English Votes for English Laws’ is Unpalatable

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Scotland voted on Thursday to remain within the United Kingdom – with 55% and 2,001,926 voting ‘No’ to Scottish independence, while 45% and 1,617,989 voted ‘Yes’ – after more than two years of heated debate, but also on the back of a late pledge by the three main Westminster parties to grant Scotland greater devolved powers as part of the UK. The pledge, signed by David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and Ed Miliband and published on the front page of the Daily Record at the beginning of the week, promised ‘extensive new powers’ to Scotland.

More devolution for Scotland in the case of a ‘No’ vote was always on the agenda, but the scope of these late-promised powers is a matter of debate between the three parties and between the parties and the SNP. The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood already legislates for Scotland’s health and social services, education, housing, transportation, agriculture, fisheries and forestry, environment, arts and sport, tourism, and economic development. The Scotland Act 2012 – which amended the Scotland Act 1998, which established the devolved Scottish Parliament – additionally gave Scotland’s Parliament the power to raise or lower the rate of income tax by 10p in the pound, uniformly across all tax bands; as well as some other minor powers relating to taxation and law and order. However the Act is not due to be fully realised before 2016, and is now likely to be superseded. At the moment the Scottish Parliament can alter the rate of income tax by 3p in the pound.

Maximum devolution for Scotland – ‘devo max’ – would imply allowing the Scottish Parliament to legislate on everything except foreign policy and defence. It is clear that any move to extend Scotland’s powers will fall some way short of this. So far, discussion around the pledge for extensive new powers for Scotland has centred upon three issues. The first is greater still Scottish authority over taxation. The SNP would like complete control over taxation within Scotland, including absolute control over income tax rates, corporation tax, and air passenger duty. The Conservatives appear ready to give complete control over income tax rates; while the Liberal Democrats would offer this and more. Labour, however, seem willing to allow the Scottish Parliament to increase tax rates as they see fit, but not to unilaterally cut the top rate of income tax.

Secondly, the pledge vowed to consolidate Scotland’s authority over its NHS. This is against a background of gesture from Westminster threatening cuts and further privatisations; but also in a context whereby the NHS in Scotland apparently faces a funding gap of £400 million. Thirdly, and related to the issue of the NHS, is the promise to retain the Barnett formula: a mechanism for allocating public expenditure levels in the United Kingdom’s four nations, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Based on population, the Barnett formula has resulted in Scotland maintaining a significantly higher expenditure per capita than England: as it stands today, Scotland spends £1,623 – 19% – more per head than England on public services.

Embellishing a timetable established several weeks ago by Gordon Brown, David Cameron announced yesterday morning in his post-referendum speech that Lord Smith of Kelvin – a former BBC governor, and chairman of the organising committee for Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games – will oversee the process towards greater devolution for Scotland. The timeline is short: detailed proposals are to be written up by October, and they should pass consultation by November before a draft bill is published in January. Any legislation will not be passed until after the general election in May, and the continued implementation of the Barnett formula is likely to prove a sticking point within the UK Parliament.

The promise of greater devolution for Scotland has brought a surge of attention to the West Lothian question, and the proposal for ‘English votes for English laws’. In short, the question – first raised back in 1977 by the West Lothian MP Tam Dalyell, in the build up to the failed Scottish referendum of 1979 – asks why Scottish MPs can vote on English laws, while English MPs cannot vote on Scottish laws as they have no access to the Scottish Parliament. The proposal suggests that where legislation only concerns England, only MPs from English constituencies should be allowed to vote.

It is easy to go back and forth over ‘English votes for English laws’. Superficially, the proposal sounds eminently reasonable; but when you realise that two of its main proponents over the past weeks and months have been Conservative MP John Redwood and UKIP leader Nigel Farage, suspicions grow in the mind as the body is immediately beset by revulsion. On the other hand on Thursday night, as the referendum results filtered through via the BBC, Ming Campbell – former Liberal Democrat leader and current MP for North East Fife – agreed that, with more powers promised to the Scottish Parliament, an end to the ability for Scottish MPs to vote on English laws is not only inevitable, but logical and fair.

In fact, the proposal was part of the Conservative manifesto for 2010; but the coalition government determined to set up a commission to investigate rather than act. The McKay Commission reported in March 2013, broadly supporting procedural change; but averring that ‘Under the Commission’s recommendations, no MPs would be prevented from voting on any bill, and the right of the House as a whole to make final decisions would be preserved’ and ‘Our proposals retain the right of a UK-wide majority to make the final decisions where they believe UK interests or those of a part of the UK other than England should prevail. We expect that governments will prefer compromise to conflict.’

English laws – as opposed to UK laws – would in theory cover the areas of health, education, transportation, and culture. Foreign affairs, defence, energy, and basic welfare provision and pensions are prominent among the realms which would then remain the concern of the UK Parliament. But with greater devolution for Scotland when it comes to taxation, it is unclear to what extent England might be allowed to set its economic policy independently from the rest of the United Kingdom. This is an intractable problem with the concept of ‘English votes for English laws’, because it is arguable that given the population of England and the size of the English economy, the decisions it makes economically will always have a disproportionate impact on its partners north and west of the border.

With Scotland voting to stay part of the UK and the focus turning to the West Lothian question, what also show through upon analysis are both the strengths of the union between Scotland and England, and the divisions within English society. ‘English votes for English laws’ is a populist proposal, and might well appeal to the vast majority of the English population. But it is hard to see how, in practise, it would benefit vast swathes of the country.

In the 2010 general election, Scotland returned 41 Labour MPs to the House of Commons from 59 contested seats. This amounts to 69% of Scotland’s seats won by Labour. In the North East of England, Labour won 25 from 29 seats. In the North West, Labour took 47 seats from a possible 75; and in Yorkshire and the Humber, they won 32 seats from 54. This means that in the north of England, Labour won 66% of seats. Yet in England as a whole, the Conservatives won 298 of 533 seats; giving them an election victory – although not a majority – in the United Kingdom with 307 seats out of 650.

When it comes to politics, the north of England is ideologically and economically closer to Scotland – and to Wales, where in 2010 Labour took 26 out of 40 seats, or 65% – than it is to London and the South East. However it is without its own parliament, and without the benefits brought about in Scotland by the Barnett formula. It suffers from a lack of representation in parliament and from a shortage of investment in jobs and in cultural life. And it seems perverse that one of the consequences of the close referendum in Scotland might be the further diminishing of the north. If ‘English votes for English laws’ becomes implemented – which may not require the passage of any new legislation – then the viewpoint of northern England will be increasingly marginalised as it loses the effective balance provided by Scottish MPs, and sees Labour struggle to attain a majority on English-only issues of legislation.

Other problems are posed by ‘English votes for English laws’. Would this change require a separate parliament building, which would be the preserve of English MPs and English matters of debate – and if so, where would an English Parliament be located? Otherwise an English Parliament could simply sit in the Commons on a rotational basis: sitting two or three days a week, with the UK Parliament sitting the rest of the time. Alternately, the UK Parliament could remain intact, with Scottish MPs even allowed to debate English laws, but voting limited to English politicians.

On Thursday night, the Times political columnist Daniel Finkelstein raised the notion that, more than an English Parliament, such a fundamental change to legislative procedure could require an English executive – a vast and unwieldy undertaking, which would have wide-ranging ramifications for governmental ministers and the civil service. Labour are advertising a constitutional convention to consider the future of political process in the United Kingdom, reluctant to accept ‘English votes for English laws’, especially as David Cameron seems set to bind further Scottish devolution to the enactment of the proposal. Meanwhile on Thursday night, Labour MP Jim Murphy took a pleasantly contrarian perspective and asked, given the breadth of powers enjoyed by the Greater London Authority, whether London’s MPs should also face a limited role when it comes to legislating for the rest of England.

This argument in particular raises the potential solution of greater devolution for England’s regions. The manner and the terms of such would be difficult to agree upon. Would the present tiered system of local councils remain; would a powerful layer of government emerge at regional level, between Westminster and the local councils over England’s nine regions; or would the concept of city-regions, experimented with in Manchester and Leeds, be spread out across the country? The powers handed over would be open to dispute. And where ‘English votes for English laws’ would seemingly benefit the Conservatives, there is the view that greater devolution for the regions would play into the hands of Labour. Any shift in powers could be complemented by a more representative voting system. But to accept that the strength of feeling shown in Scotland extends throughout the UK requires significant devolution to the regions – and the development of a genuine localised politics, a process which appears both viable and necessary in today’s globalised, interconnected world.