Anarchy in the UK: The proposals for English devolution are a recipe for chaos


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The Independent Online

For all the expectation in political circles, yesterday’s debate on English votes for English laws (Evel) was an exercise in futility.

Let us suppose, for now, that the English public actually cares, that in pubs and clubs from Berwick to Land’s End they speak of little else but the West Lothian Question – it was still a pointless debate.

Legislating to change the way the House of Commons operates is always complex and time consuming. It is best done, if possible, by agreement between the parties. In this case, there was no prospect of agreement, nor was there meant to be. A glance at the electoral geography indicates why. At the last election, the Conservatives won 297 out of 533 seats in England, but only one in Scotland, and eight in Wales. Labour won 191 in England, and 67 in Scotland and Wales.

Next year, the gap between Labour and the Conservatives will probably close; the opinion polls even suggest that Labour will inch ahead, but Labour is not going to outperform the Conservatives in England.

If Parliament were to adopt the most extreme of the options put forward by the Tories yesterday, the one drawn up by the Tory academic, Lord Norton of Louth, it could create a situation in which Labour, as the largest party, forms a UK government and controls certain aspects of government policy, such as foreign affairs, but not England’s health service, or education or transport, which would be controlled more or less in perpetuity by the Conservatives. Since these services are where the bulk of government spending goes, there would be little point in a Labour chancellor setting a Budget.

There is a milder form of Evel, proposed by the former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, under which legislation applying only to England would first go before the whole House of Commons, then be amended by a committee of English MPs, then go back to the Commons. That is less contentious than Lord Norton’s scheme, under which the UK  would effectively cease to be a nation state.

Unsurprisingly, it is the Conservative Party which stands for Evel. Its argument is that the promise made to the Scots of more power for the Scottish Parliament has made it more urgent than ever to address the West Lothian Question. And it is no surprise either that Labour should be set against Evel, although it was a Labour government which set this hare running by granting devolution to Scotland and Wales. A former Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, memorably said that the answer to the West Lothian Question was to stop asking it. The United Kingdom is not a federation of similar-size states. England has 83.5 per cent of the total UK population. All but 127 out of 650 MPs represent English constituencies. The votes of MPs from outside England are decisive only when England’s votes are almost equally divided.

The Liberal Democrats, by the way, have their distinctive solution – a form of Evel, under which English legislation would be controlled by a committee formed on the basis of proportional representation. Like Labour and the Conservatives, they want what is best for their party.

However, the fact that the political parties are pursuing their own partisan interests rather than the public good is almost an irrelevance, because there is not the slightest chance of Parliament agreeing to Evel unless or until the Conservatives have an outright majority. There is no prospect of that, at least until 2020.