Last night we highlighted the reaction from various right-wing columnists to the SNP’s torpedoing yesterday of Tory attempts to relax the laws on foxhunting in England and Wales. Today the same commentariat has turned its rage to thoughts of revenge, in the form of “English votes for English laws”.
And we’re confused, because we don’t know what this “England” they speak of is.
First, we should illustrate with a couple of examples:
“They should stop at the Border because this has nothing to do with Scotland. These matters are devolved to the Scots – or has Labour forgotten the process it set in train some 20 years ago? It also makes it more important that the other item of business in the House this week – English votes for English laws – is pursued with the utmost vigour.” (Philip Johnston in The Telegraph)
“Hypocritical, shameless, unprincipled: Sturgeon’s stance on hunting is just the start of her war on England.” (Chris Deerin in the Daily Mail)
We could go on (and on), but you get the idea. Curiously, though, none of the outraged rants call for the only intellectually-coherent solution – an English Parliament.
Until such a thing exists (and indeed, even if it did), there is only one Parliament in the UK, which legislates for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The various devolved chambers are mere executive arms, which can ultimately be overruled by Westminster – we’ve seen that starkly demonstrated in recent weeks by the UK government’s steamrollering of Scotland Bill amendments supported by almost every single Scottish MP.
This state of affairs isn’t secret. The Prime Minister regularly speaks about governing the UK as “one nation”, and Labour spent much of the last parliament presenting itself as “One Nation Labour”. Much to the dismay of Scottish nationalists, last year’s referendum saw Scotland vote to continue as part of that one nation, under a mixture of pleading and threats from Unionists.
Except now the Unionists seem to have changed their mind.
If the UK is one nation, then it inescapably follows that there can be constitutionally no such things as Scottish MPs or English MPs in the UK parliament. There are only British MPs, representing their constituencies in various parts of Britain.
(We’re going to use that term loosely for readability, so don’t be pedantic in the comments. We know it’s not strictly the same as the UK.)
For the purposes of the constitution, then, Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales are merely regions, just like Yorkshire and Perthshire and Antrim and Gwent.
Yet there’s no clamour for MPs representing Newcastle or Aberystwyth to be excluded from votes which only truly concern (say) London, like the £15bn Crossrail network. MPs for Belfast and Torquay get to vote unchallenged on HS2, which will never come anywhere near Northern Ireland or Devon.
Even votes which only directly affect one area can have repercussions anywhere. During the referendum we were urged not to make our family in different parts of the UK “foreigners”. We were begged to all retain the same nationality, and that was the result of the vote. Yet apparently we’re now meant not to care about them any more.
But hang on a minute. “Them” and “us” is not how we were asked to think during the referendum. When Unionists were pleading with Scots to stay in the UK, we were all one people. Yet now if a Scot lives in England and wishes to be assisted in ending their life in the event of terminal illness, and is prevented from doing so by laws made in Westminster, we’re told that their family must instruct their Scottish MP sitting in that Westminster parliament to stand aside and wash their hands of the matter, even though they live in the same “one nation”.
You can’t have it both ways. Scots chose, albeit narrowly, to have Scotland remain a region of Britain. Its MPs must therefore be allowed to vote in the UK parliament, in the interests of their British constituents, on any matter they choose. Family don’t blink in and out of existence every time they cross a regional border.
(Something which, incidentally, could literally become true in the case of Scotland and England having different laws on assisted dying. There’s a can of worms for you.)
The complaint that English MPs cannot vote on matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament is a disingenuous red herring, because the Scottish Parliament and the UK parliament are not analogous bodies – it’s Scottish (ie British) MPs who get to vote on UK laws, not Scottish Parliament MSPs.
If an English MP wants to vote on matters devolved to Scotland, they’re perfectly at liberty to stand for election to the Scottish Parliament. No law prohibits a politician from sitting at both Westminster and Holyrood – Alex Salmond, for example, currently has seats in both, as have many others. (Although interestingly, dual mandates will soon be outlawed in Northern Ireland and Wales.)
And in any event, of course, it’s simply fundamentally not true to claim that English politicians have no influence on Scottish Parliament decisions. None of the Unionist parties’ Scottish branches are independent. The notional head of the Scottish branch office of Labour is ultimately answerable to the UK Labour leader and has to do what they tell them, in the same way that Westminster can overrule Holyrood any time it chooses to. The phrase “power devolved is power retained” was coined for a reason.
There are only three solutions to the West Lothian Question – an English Parliament, abolition of the Scottish Parliament, or independence for Scotland.
Having successfully persuaded Scots (for now) to reject the latter option, and lacking the courage for the middle one, Unionists must either enact the first or shut up and lie in the marriage bed they insisted we share. We’re either one nation or we’re not.