Given the scale of the policy challenges facing the UK government, it is a surprise to see it turn its attention to one of the most niche and little-known constitutional questions of our times. Senior figures have confirmed that the government may remove the rules introduced by David Cameron that limit the possibility of legislation on English matters being passed without the support of most English MPs.
These rules – known as “English Votes for English Laws”, or EVEL – caused a minor political furore when they were first pursued in the immediate aftermath of the No vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Following their introduction, they vanished into political obscurity. In part, this is because they are highly technical and immensely complicated. And in part this is because of the political circumstances in which they have been applied – with successive Conservative governments elected with the support of most English MPs.
So, why revisit them now? The reasons given are rather surprising.
The objections made by earlier critics from Labour and the SNP are now endorsed by Conservative ministers, with the House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg citing the fear that these rules may infringe upon the principle that MPs should be of equal standing. In fact, as a study I co-authored a few years ago showed, EVEL does not prevent any MP from voting on any bill before the House. What it does is provide members with English seats with the ability to veto English legislation. It is hard to take at face value the claim that the position of any MP has been adversely affected by these rules.
What is also surprising about the idea of abolition is that the government appears to have forgotten why the rules were introduced in the first place. They were intended to mitigate the effects of the “West Lothian question”, posed during the intense debates on devolution in the 1970s by the Labour MP Tam Dalyell. How was it justifiable, he asked, that MPs with seats in devolved areas could vote to determine England’s health or education policy, but English MPs could not reciprocate in kind? Labour deemed this to be a question that was not worthy of an answer. The Conservative Party became convinced that this consequence of asymmetrical devolution needed to be remedied.
Now, several years later, Cameron’s successors are arguing the exact opposite. And it is worth considering why.
Perhaps they believe that abolishing EVEL will help the unionist cause in Scotland. However, given that few outside Westminster have heard of, or care about, these rules, this seems unlikely. It could be that this is another example of the Johnson government wanting to put clear water between itself and the Cameron/Osborne years – here, choosing an issue that is unlikely to provoke much parliamentary opposition. Indeed, Labour may be rather happy to be spared the dilemma of how it would handle the issue in office.
However, there may be a deeper motive at work as ministers believe they can send a powerful and important symbolic message by abolishing EVEL. Such a move would highlight their belief that the English do not need any kind of protection or special provision in the union parliament – an important signal from an administration that has adopted an openly sceptical view of the powers of the devolved governments. Boris Johnson, and a handful of figures around him, espouse a different, more Anglo-centric species of British unionism to their Conservative predecessors. Theirs is more activist in character, and more assertive in intent, and reflects the belief that the UK government needs to act purposefully and, where necessary, confrontationally, to show that it is the main source of sovereignty.
This outlook means the current government tends to be sceptical of the post-devolution convention that the UK government should seek the legislative consent of devolved governments when making decisions that impinge on their competencies (otherwise known as the Sewel convention). This uncodified rule was dramatically breached when the key Brexit legislation was passed by Westminster despite the refusal of the Scottish parliament to give its assent, and when Johnson’s contentious Internal Market Bill was voted down by all three devolved legislatures. EVEL is in the government’s sights because it mimics the principle of legislative consent, in this case for England’s representatives. It offers an easy and neatly symbolic opportunity to make a wider point.
And yet the bigger issues these imperfect rules reflect are potentially incendiary. The democratic principle that lies behind EVEL matters: do the English feel it is right and proper that laws that affect only their own territory are set by MPs from beyond England’s borders? This question would be reignited if a future election yields a government that does not command the support of those who identify most strongly as English, not British, and who are most inclined to believe that England gets a raw deal from the Union.
A unionist government lavishing much energy, attention and funding on Scotland may find that it has taken the English for granted and overlooked the possibility that many on this side of the border do not see preservation of the Union as a priority. In this sense it is English indifference, rather than the much-invoked “English nationalism”, that unionists at the centre should be contemplating.
Johnson’s neo-unionism reflects a British imaginary that sees devolved government and calls to provide some form of English-level recognition as sources of fragmentation, and resiles from the idea that the UK is a voluntary union of self-determining peoples. In taking this line his administration has triggered an increasingly open conflict with the pro-devolution unionist position, which was, until recently, the prevalent view in both Whitehall and Westminster.
Its main answer to the multiple challenges facing the Union is the reassertion of the authority of the central state and the promotion of a monolithic idea of Britishness that, evidence suggests, is shared by fewer and fewer people across the UK. EVEL may turn out to be an early casualty in what may prove to be an extended, painful struggle over competing visions of the Union.