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2 November 2007

Right question, wrong answer

Tory proposals for Engish votes on English laws would create more problems than they would solve

By Sue Stirling

So it seems David Cameron is seriously looking at the English Question. They’re right to do this but they have the wrong solution.

There has been much coverage of the Conservatives taking up Malcolm Rifkind’s proposed solution of an English Grand Committee to debate laws that “apply only to England”. It is claimed this is a more elegant solution than English votes on English laws, but there is a nagging question: is it really different?

When he initially proposed this idea last year Rifkind argued that there should be a convention that the House does not overturn the will of the English Grand Committee – a convention that never applied to the Scottish or Welsh Grand Committees that existed prior to devolution. If this convention is still part of his recommendation, then this is simply English votes on English laws by another name.

There are two major problems with English votes, which have been covered extensively. The first is that deciding what is an ‘English law’ is not as straightforward as many seem to think. Take for example the legislation introducing university top-up fees in England: it included clauses that applied to Scotland too.

Second, and more problematic, is that a separate English vote raises the prospect of a UK government unable to govern England – its largest constituent part. This would create a constitutional crisis far greater than the current anomaly and would most likely be a fast track to the dissolution of the UK – surely a problem for an avowedly Unionist party.

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There is a further problem that has been debated less, and that is the Westminster-centric nature of this ‘solution’. England’s real problem isn’t how Scottish MPs vote – at the end of the day there are 533 English MPs and 59 Scottish ones. England’s real problem is the dead hand of centralism that saps the life out of local and regional politics. We have seen tentative steps towards decentralisation within England, but we need to see more.

Brown’s constitutional reforms have mainly focused on changes within the Palace of Westminster. He must now break out of that bubble and engage in a much wider debate with civic society about who we are and the way we are governed.

An important part of this could be his development of a ‘Statement of British values’, but only if any such statement recognises the diversity of Britain – not just our ethnic diversity, but our local, regional and national diversity too. He won’t like to hear it, but perhaps he can learn a lesson here from Alex Salmond, whose ‘National Conversation’ about the future of Scotland has captured the popular imagination more than Brown’s proposed reforms.

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