Amid the flurry of activity that has occurred in the United Kingdom Parliament since the Conservative government was elected with a majority in May, one measure passed on Oct. 22 that perhaps did not receive the attention it deserved: the “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL) law.
Coming as a direct result of last year’s Scottish independence referendum, perhaps commentators felt the subject had been exhausted. Nevertheless, EVEL has the potential to be just as important for the United Kingdom’s fate as the referendum itself, since it moves the political system one step further in devolution of power.
Since its formation as a union in 1707, the United Kingdom has struggled with rebellious elements in its more remote regions. Scottish highlanders rebelled more than once in the 18th century, and in the 19th century Ireland demanded its independence and eventually won it in the 20th century. The problems of secessionism have continued into recent decades. EVEL was designed as an attempt to resolve a resulting issue that has been tugging at the United Kingdom’s parliamentary sleeve for many years. Known as the “West Lothian question,” the issue emerged in the 19th century when Ireland was embarking on its course to independence, but resurfaced again in 1977 during discussions about devolving power to Scotland and Wales. Under the suggested new system, Scotland and Wales would gain some independent control over some of their own domestic administration, while Scottish and Welsh parliament members in London would still have full voting powers over all the national laws involving the entire United Kingdom, though England would lack an equivalent power. The parliament member for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, asked how it was fair that Scottish and Welsh parliament members should have a say over English laws while English parliament members were not afforded an equal influence to the north and west of the border.
The referendum that followed the discussions did not lead to devolution, putting the problem on hold for two decades, but it returned in 1997 when another referendum returned a positive result and the Scotland Act saw the creation of a Scottish parliament in 1999. The West Lothian question has thus been in play for the last 16 years, but to a small enough degree that the “unfairness” has been tolerable. This is because the powers afforded to the Scottish parliament have been somewhat limited, and with England making up 84 percent of the United Kingdom’s population and Scotland just 8 percent, English parliament members had influence over such an overwhelming proportion of the laws passed in the United Kingdom as a whole that the discrepancy could be overlooked.
However, the Scottish referendum of 2014 changed the situation. As the referendum approached its climax, the polls began to show an increasing likelihood that the “Out” vote might win, prompting senior members of the Westminster government to rush up to Scotland to hurriedly improve the devolution terms on offer should the Scots choose “In,” which they ultimately did. The terms offered to the Scots appear to have tipped this mildly unbalanced situation into a pronounced enough disequilibrium that the day after the vote, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would finally address the West Lothian question as part of the new deal offered to the Scots to reassure English voters.
The EVEL law is the result of that promise. Under the new rules, the speaker of the British Parliament will decide whether or not a new law should be considered “English” — for example, if it does not touch the other three members of the union. Once a law has been labeled as English, it will then be considered only by English parliament members in a separate session, cutting the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliament members out of the voting before adding them all back in later on in the process. This system is in place now and will be reviewed after a year.
It is a flawed solution for several reasons. First, it politicizes the position of the speaker, who will now have to decide whether or not Scottish parliament members are allowed to vote on a matter; historically, the Labour Party has had many more Scottish parliament members than the Conservatives have. Moreover, removing the influence of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliament members over English matters also removes from them a great deal of influence over the overall workings of Westminster, since England is such a substantial part of the whole. Thus it becomes much harder for a Scottish parliament member to become prime minister (Gordon Brown, a Scot, was Cameron’s predecessor as prime minister), since it would be difficult for a prime minister to rule while locked out of at least some of the domestic vote for 84 percent of the country. Because it diminishes the chances of someone from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland getting the top job, EVEL surely will have a corrosive effect on the subnational members’ loyalty to the union as a whole. Members of the Scottish National Party already have loudly denounced the development.
But if this is not a sustainable plan, what is the solution? In Scotland, Britain has to cope with a union member that is demanding ever more powers and autonomy if it is to remain part of the union. EVEL is evidence of the existing system being stretched into contortions in an attempt to accommodate this. The systemic shift that would appear to be the ultimate end goal, and the one toward which EVEL might be a step, is outright federalism: a U.S.- or German-style system in which power is devolved in equal terms to all the underlying states, which are overseen by a federal government that combines the considerations of all its members.
The problem is that unlike Germany and the United States, the United Kingdom is not made up of a sizable number of reasonably equal-sized states (with some outliers); it would instead be a four-state union that would be utterly dominated by the largest — England. A federal government leader, such as a president, would have to cope with an English state government whose leader would represent 84 percent of the president’s total purview. The power balance between these two figures would be such that any foreign leader would surely be confused as to which person to call to address the true power in the United Kingdom. In addition, unlike Germany and the United States, the United Kingdom has real and significant separatist problems.
Thus a federal solution does not appear to be the answer, and the solution that has emerged looks set to drive Britain’s smaller nations further away from the center, creating more problems for the union. Before the referendum, the Scottish Nationalist Party stated that the vote would settle the matter for a generation, but the strong undercurrents that have emerged partly as a result of the referendum have caused the party to reconsider, and given an opportunity it is likely that the Scots will begin to lobby hard for a rerun of the vote. The United Kingdom may have escaped losing Scotland a year ago, but the prevailing currents continue to push against the bonds that tie the union together. The EVEL law is just another symptom of the trend.