Immediately after the referendum on independence, David Cameron announced that he was gong to take action to bar Scottish MPs from voting on English laws. The issue he’s working on, English Votes for English Laws, sounds initially plausible if you’re not a Unionist. The problem has been framed as the West Lothian question: that people who have the exclusive power to vote on issues affecting themselves shouldn’t be able to vote on the same issues as they affect others. There are three things wrong with that way of thinking about it.
First, the UK parliament is sovereign: devolution, and the position of the three national parliaments within the structure, is based on delegated authority. The power to vote on Scottish laws isn’t exclusive: the UK Parliament has retained authority to legislate for Scotland, and it uses that authority frequently, often through the use of a “Sewel motion”. If the representatives of one nation can’t vote on matters affecting another, then English MPs should not be able to vote on Sewel motions or indeed on any legislation with effect in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. That would have to include all previously reserved matters. Denying MPs a role in the legislature implies either that the sovereignty of parliament must be divided or that those MPs are not full members of the sovereign body. Dividing the sovereignty of Parliament is not compatible with Unionism; denying the right to participate in the sovereign parliament is not compatible with democracy.
Second, votes in one part of the UK affect what happens in other parts. The Northern Ireland Assembly have fully devolved power over their own social security system – but it’s been made abundantly clear that what happens in UK social security affects what happens in Northern Ireland’s independent system, and the fines being levied on Northern Ireland currently relate to the specific rules introduced for Employment and Support Allowance and Personal Independence Payment.
Third, devolution is not a good reason to reduce the authority of regional representatives within Parliament. The government has promised further devolution to English regions, for example enabling a new Manchester-centred authority to act on policing and transport. Should that mean that Manchester MPs shouldn’t vote on transport and policing issues in Parliament? If we follow the principle to a rational conclusion, it should mean that there should be no representation at national level whenever any region, city or community is empowered to make a local decision in relation to the same issue. That would be consistent with some types of federal government, but it really doesn’t relate to the UK model.
I’ve argued in previous posts for a different type of approach to the UK constitution. The UK suffers badly from obsessive centralisation, a lack of constitutional safeguards and an imbalance of power that allows central government to impose uniform policies on all the other actors. The English regions need to have the Treasury’s foot taken off their necks as much as the nations of the Union do. (The power to issue municipal bonds might be a good place to start.) There may well be a case for an English parliament or parliaments, but that has to be developed through devolution or delegation of authority to appropriate representative bodies.