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The government's plans for English votes for English laws get worse the more you look at them

The government's plans for English votes are undemocratic, bad for accountability, and bad for the United Kingdom. Other than that, they're great, says Ian Lucas MP.

The keystone of a democratic nation’s legislature is that its elected representatives have an equal voice. On Thursday 2 July 2015, in the United Kingdom Parliament, that principle was set aside. The Government’s proposals to give additional rights to MPs from England, compared to MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland abrogates that principle and, as a consequence, the future of the United Kingdom is threatened.

The creation of a separate English Grand Committee with exclusive, real powers also introduces English devolution by the back door. It means that, from next week, the Tories will, for laws deemed English, increase their majority from 12 to 105. This makes the Tories’ majority unassailable, transforming them from a marginal majority government, into one with a landslide majority.

When, in 1997, Labour legislated to introduce devolution, it introduced the Additional Member System in the devolved legislatures to mitigate the impact of its-then-overwhelming majority. The Tories have no such qualms, retaining the First Past the Post voting system to preserve their majority in the new English Grand Committee.

And they will do so without legislation, simply by amending Standing Orders of the House of Commons. This means that the House of Lords will not consider the change.

Conservative MPs from England say repeatedly that there are already two classes of MP – that they are second class MPs because there are devolved legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is wholly untrue. All MPs in the UK have, in practical terms, the same standing as regards matters devolved to the nations’ legislatures. Thus, as an MP from Wales, I have the same rights as an MP from England to ask questions on devolved matters: none, because Parliament has decided to devolve responsibility for these matters to the devolved institutions.

If England would prefer to have a devolved legislature, it is entirely open to it to create one, or a number of devolved legislatures, if it so wishes. That it has not done so is a matter of choice of Parliament. If one is to be created, it should be done using the law of the land to effect constitutional change. It beggars belief that an English jurisdiction is being created without legislation.

In the Commons, I asked the Leader of the House of Commons to name one power that I, as an MP from Wales, have that he, as an MP from England, does not have. He could not do so. If these proposals go through, he, on the other hand, will have powers that I do not have: the keystone of equality for MPs within the House of Commons is gone.

It is extraordinary that a Secretary of State who professes himself a Unionist cannot see the danger of this proposal. Giving additional rights to MPs from England, as distinguished from those in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, gives additional impetus to the nationalist arguments that they are being treated unfairly. For, as the Democratic Unionist MP from Northern Ireland, Nigel Dodds, has highlighted, the Government is refusing to give the same rights to MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in non-devolved areas that he is giving to MPs from England.

What is even more bizarre is that the Government does not propose that this rule should apply in the House of Lords. I have a working peer living in my constituency. In future, my rights to take part in legislative proceedings, as an elected member, will be limited in a way that his will not be.

The implications of this policy are immense: it is likely that MPs from outside England will be unable to be Ministers on those bills that are deemed to be England only as they will be excluded from relevant committees. The question arises whether it will be possible to have a Prime Minister from outside England as he will be unable to participate fully in England only legislation.

Those of us who love the United Kingdom, from whatever party, must act now. The Government’s proposals pose an immediate threat to the Union. They must be withdrawn and replaced by a considered, open process to address the challenged posed by constitutional change.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage