Labour MP Emily Thornberry’s controversial tweet has once again fuelled debates about English identity and constitutional reform. Felicity Matthews, Associate Fellow of the Crick Centre looks at Prime Minister David Cameron’s defence of his ‘English votes for English laws’ proposal. She argues that the diversity of views within England should be taken into account, or the union may be vulnerable to future shocks.
— Emily Thornberry MP (@EmilyThornberry) November 20, 2014
In yesterday’s appearance before the Liaison Committee, David Cameron launched a passionate defence of his proposal for ‘English votes for English laws.’ Yet, although a spotlight currently shines brightly on the perceived asymmetry of the devolution settlement, the issue in question is anything but new. Variants of Cameron’s proposals have been mooted out at various points of constitutional consternation, which stretch back to the time of Gladstone and demands for ‘home rule all round’. Moreover, whenever such arguments have been advanced, well-known counter-arguments have been rehearsed, including the difficulties in disentangling ‘English’ from ‘UK’ legislation; the knock-on effects for the allocation of funding across the UK; and risk of an in-built bias in favour of the Conservatives.
The Prime Minister argued that he is ‘the only party leader who is prepared to say to the people of England, “you should have… the same rights over legislation that are being given to Scotland and Wales”’; and it is true that this commitment was set out in the Party’s 2010 manifesto, which promised to introduce ‘new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales’ so that it ‘cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.’
Indeed, the Coalition Government established in 2011 the McKay Commission to consider the implications of devolution for the House of Commons. However, the Commission argued against the introduction of English votes on English laws, as it would ‘would create different classes of MP and could provoke deadlock between the UK Government and the majority of MPs in England’; and instead argued that ‘MPs from England (or England-and-Wales) should have new or additional ways to assert their interests.’
As such, the proposals for English votes for English laws can be seen not just as an attempt to rescind the rushed promises of devo-max pledged as the Westminster parties sought to woo Scotland back into the folds of the Union; but as an opportunity for the Conservative leader to force the delivery an increasingly emblematic pledge, and in doing so quell backbench discontent. And yet the well-trodden – but nonetheless significant – arguments of yore remain without resolution.
Given the existence of the Barnett formula and Sewel motions, is it possible to speak of English-only laws, as any law passed by Parliament will have direct funding implications for the devolved regions and may in time reach the statute books of the devolved assemblies? Surely the MP for Linlithgow (the county town of West Lothian) should have a voice in debates in London regarding the allocation of public funds? Indeed, is it even possible to speak of an ‘English voice’ given the ever-growing disparities between different parts of the country, and the yawning gap in the economic fortunes of south-east and everywhere else? Surely the inhabitants of Liverpool, Lincoln and Leeds have interests which are as distinct as those in Linlithgow?
The natural corollary of this would be to argue for the amplification of the many voices of England though new forms of regional governance. Yet, this government’s attempts to reboot English regionalism have been met with a cool reception. In May 2012, voters in 10 out of 11 of England’s largest cities rejected proposals for directly elected mayors; and in November 2012, only 14.9% of voters in England and Wales bothered to elect new Police and Crime Commissioners. Indeed, the future of PCCs is far from assured as incidents such the unwillingness of South Yorkshire PCC Shaun Wright to resign following allegations of involvement in the cover-up of child abuse in Rotherham have done little to promote public faith in the system.
As the 2015 general election approaches, issues devolution in Scotland and its consequences are set to occupy a key position in debates. With limited representation in Scotland, the Conservative Party have little to gain by supporting further devolution. However, responses such as ‘English votes on English laws’ could provide the party with an inbuilt majority on all ‘domestic’ issues within Parliament, which will clearly be unpalatable to Labour who until 1997 relied on Scottish MPs to form a majority in the House. Yet Labour’s equivocal stance on further devolution to Scotland risks alienating its core vote; and recent polls suggest that the Party is on the verge of electoral meltdown in Scotland.
At the same time, I would counsel all parties to take notice of the many englands within England. The voters of Liverpool, Lincoln and Leeds – not to mention Lancaster, Luton and Leicester – have manifold and diverse interests; and many are feeling as alienated from Westminster politics as their Linlithgow compatriots, as the recent UKIP gains in Clacton and Rochester and Stroud demonstrate. A failure to acknowledge these many voices render the union vulnerable to further shocks, and the risk exists that the fabric of the constitution will unravel as its threads are pulled without pausing to consider the intricacies of their interwoven character.
Felicity Matthews is a Senior Lecturer in Governance and Public Policy at the University of Sheffield. She has previously been a member of the Department of Politics at the University of York as a Lecturer in Public Policy; held a Leverhulme Fellowship in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield; and was awarded an ESRC-funded Post Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Exeter.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.