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Labour is on the wrong side of the argument as far as English votes for English laws are concerned

For the sake of a few foxes, Labour has fallen into a Tory trap, warns Michael Kenny.

The growing debate over English Votes for English Laws (Evel as it has come to be known) has so far focused on the difficulties facing the government as it seeks to design and implement a complicated, and potentially incendiary, set of changes to the procedures of the Commons. Faced by a united front from the opposition parties at Westminster, as well as disquiet from within its own ranks, Chris Grayling has been forced to delay the vote to change Standing Orders until after the summer recess.

The decision, yesterday, to delay another vote – this time on relaxing the law on foxhunting in England and Wales will be seen by many as a further indication of the weakness of the government’s legislative position.

But this impression is in some ways misleading. There are good reasons to believe that this turn of events could strengthen the government’s hand on Evel, and lead its political opponents into difficult, unpredictable waters. The SNP’s announcement that it intended to vote on the hunting legislation that very clearly affects only England and Wales represents a major U-turn. The party has for a long time adopted the practice of not voting in the Commons on legislation that does not affect Scotland. Scottish opinion has tended to support this stance, with around half consistently supporting the principle in opinion polls over recent years.

The party’s main criticism of the government’s Evel proposals has been to insist that

many matters that appear to relate only to England in fact have pretty important consequences for Scotland, especially when it comes to legislation that has consequences for funding through the Barnett formula. But no such argument can be made when it comes to the hunting legislation that the government wants to advance – which affects England and Wales only.

In 2000, when hunting was debated in the Commons, SNP leader Alex Salmond indicated that he would be advising MPs for Scottish constituencies to miss the vote: ‘I don't think it is fair, if the Scottish Parliament is going to make a decision on hunting, for them to start interfering and poking their noses into what is an English domestic affair’. The suggestion that the SNP now wants to punish the Conservative government over the Scotland Bill risks painting it as a party that puts tactical expediency above principle – exactly the criticism it has offered of Westminster politics.

For Labour, meanwhile, what may look like a relatively harmless episode reflects a telling insensitivity to the question of how English voters might feel about this issue. While most people do not support the government’s relaxation of the rules relating to hunting foxes, there is another, territorial dimension to this controversy which Labour has missed.

Its approach to the foxhunting vote reflects a tactical desire to embarrass the government, and a profound indifference to the democratic, as well as national, questions associated with English devolution. By publicly urging the SNP to vote on this legislation, Labour’s PLP returned to the pretence that there is no English question to be considered in British politics, and chose to ignore the well documented sense of unease about the terms of union which many English people feel

None of this is to suggest that Evel is the right or only answer to the English Question. The Conservatives may well come to regret that its reforms are now so closely entwined with an issue – foxhunting – where a clearly majority of opinion in England and Wales is against it. And yet, in the longer term, this rather curious episode may well stiffen the Tories’ resolve to implement Evel, and will certainly weaken the position of a number of potential rebels, worried about the possibility that these changes will heighten territorial tensions within the union. Now that the SNP and Labour have shown themselves so indifferent to the principle that legislation affecting England alone (or in this case England and Wales) should only pass with the consent of political representatives from these territories, a moderate version of Evel appears less likely.

The real winners from this controversy are those – mostly on the right of the Conservative party –  who want to see a much more robust form of Evel, perhaps enshrined in primary legislation. Ironically, had the government’s model been applied to the hunting issue, the legislation would probably not have passed, as it would have required a UK-wide majority, as well as the consent of English MPs. In the wake of this week’s controversy, radical voices will now be more empowered to demand that a much more robust, and potentially divisive, form of Evel be contemplated. Demands to restrict the voting rights of non-English MPs, or to force a clearer separation of English business – and, even more controversially, English taxes – are likely to be much more prominent in debates on this issue.

But, aside from the rights and wrongs of Evel, in political terms the Labour party has once more gifted the Conservatives the opportunity to present themselves as the party that speaks up for the interests of England, while its opponents refuse to acknowledge its democratic rights. And for that, Labour will continue to play a high political price.

 

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. He is a Visiting Fellow of the Centre on Constitutional Change, and is leading a research project on ‘English Votes for English Laws’.

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary,  University of London, and an associate fellow at IPPR

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution