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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.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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