“English Votes for English Laws”

“EVindictiveness and Incoherence Directed against Scottish Sovereignty

On October 22, the Commons voted on the proposed new Standing Orders of the House of Commons known as “English Votes for English Laws”, or Evel for short, moved by Leader of the House Chris Grayling. The constitutional change was passed by 312 votes to 270.

The changes were railroaded through parliament. It has been pointed out that Evel is the biggest change to the legislative process since the 1911 Parliament Act. Yet only three and a half hours were given to the debate, meaning that most of the MPs who spoke were limited to less than five minutes.

Evel introduces an extra stage to the legislative process. Prior to the change, bills introduced into the Commons were debated and voted upon before being passed to the Lords, and vice-versa for bills starting in the Lords. After the change, there is now an additional step in the Commons where any bill deemed specific to England is debated by a new Grand Legislative Committee for England (taking place in the floor of the House of Commons itself), where only MPs representing English constituencies are able to veto the bill preventing its further progress. A similar stage and corresponding committee exist for bills that are considered England and Wales-only, and similarly for bills concerning only England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This stage takes place before the final Third Reading and vote before the whole Commons.

The government pressed for Evel under the pretext of the so-called “West Lothian question”, claiming an unfairness whereby MPs from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are able to vote on matters that affect only England, while MPs from England are unable to vote on matters that have been devolved to the Assemblies and Parliaments of those nations and regions. This issue was not promoted to solve anything, but rather reflects the constitutional mess in which Britain now finds itself and is itself used to further obscure matters and block the various nations asserting their sovereignty and having a say.

The main target at the present time is Scotland. The government announced the plans immediately after the Scottish independence referendum last year, which had not at all gone the way the British establishment had hoped, despite the No to independence vote, and had opened up the whole debate over where sovereignty lies. Since that time, the voice of the Scottish people, expressed in the landslide victory in Scotland of the SNP in the general election, has become a significant factor in the growing opposition to the austerity programme. Further, with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, the government is attempting to place blocks in the way of a united opposition in parliament.

The “fairness” argument does not stand up to scrutiny and has been widely criticised, including from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a key figure in the official No campaign in the Scottish referendum, who pointed out the fundamental size asymmetry between England and the other nations, which would mean the domination by England by virtue of its majority under Evel. Moreover, Scotland is in actuality both historically and in the present unable to exercise its sovereignty, blocked by the British state under the domination of England. Overturning this historical injustice is a precondition for a voluntary union of modern sovereign states that can be considered “fair”. Without this, the new procedures are an instrument of continued subjugation in that they are simply disempowering. As critics have pointed out, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs are reduced to a second-class status.

Compounding this, defining what exactly constitutes a bill that is “England-only in its entirety” is highly problematic in the present context. For example, Grayling suggested that the vote on expanding Heathrow Airport could fall into this category. Yet it is clear that this decision impacts the whole of Britain. Further, it is not difficult to envisage bills deemed England-only that nevertheless have financial consequences outside of England. In general, this question, particularly as it involves determining precisely where devolution applies or not, is likely to be subtle and nuanced.

The new procedures give the role of deciding what bills are England-only to the Speaker of the House of Commons. This gives the Speaker a significant new power over the legislative process. Given the problematic nature of the decision, various people, such as chair of the procedure committee that considered the proposals, Charles Walker, warned of the possibility of legal challenges to the Speaker’s decisions. The door is therefore open to these decisions becoming politicised.

Pete Wishart, SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, said that “all Evel does is enhance the case for independence” and pointed out the autocratic nature of the government in making this constitutional change: “There is not one political party in this House that supports these plans other than the Conservatives. There is not one devolved legislature assembly or parliament throughout the United Kingdom who support these plans.” He further warned that the Speaker’s decisions could be taken “all the way to the Supreme Court”. He said it was a “dark, dark day for Scottish members of parliament” and that Scottish MPs “have been consigned to second-class status”.

SNP MP for Midlothian Owen Thomson tweeted: “The Tories ended the Union today – not SNP not the people of Scotland – result of this will have a huge consequence for whole UK.”

The Conservatives took “a wrecking ball to parliament” said Ian Murray, Labour’s shadow Scottish Secretary, while shadow Leader of the House Chris Bryant called Evel a “charter for breaking up the Union”. “This is not a conservative set of measures,” he said. “It’s quite dangerous. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare and I think the honourable members will regret it.”

“It is not a Unionist set of measures either,” he said further, suggesting that “it’s as if the Prime Minister has decided to fashion a new grievance for Scotland”.

With last year’s referendum on Scottish independence and subsequent developments, a space has opened up over the right to decide and the question of where sovereignty lies. The government has sought to occupy this space in the interests of the ruling elite, as well as their own narrow interests as the party-in-power. Their contempt for parliament truly is dangerous and highlights the extent of the crisis surrounding the issue of sovereignty, not only of the nations in Britain, but of the people in general. It is that sovereignty should lie with the people, as indeed put forward in the draft constitution for an independent Scotland, that points the way out of this crisis. It is precisely this proposal entailing a modern sovereign Scotland that the ruling elite seeks to suppress.

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