Creaking mechanism: The British Constitution needs modernising if it is to serve a semi-devolved United Kingdom

 

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For a knotty constitutional problem that has vexed the finest minds for decades, the Government’s proposals for so-called English Votes for English Laws is a surprisingly elegant solution. The West Lothian Question, to use its older title, asked why an MP sitting for a Scottish constituency in Lothian could vote on, say, the organisation of the NHS in the rest of the UK, but an English, Welsh or Northern Irish MP would never be able to vote on a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The notion of a double-majority – where, as appropriate, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish members can vote but not decide on matters relating to England – is about the best compromise that can be reached in the short term to such unprecedented circumstances as we now face.

There are, of course, drawbacks. The Scottish National Party – for the time being the main effective opposition to the Conservatives in the House of Commons – points out that dividing up issues is not a neat and  tidy business. Many decisions on English policy can affect other parts of the UK, not least because England is such a dominant component of the UK. The Government proposes that the Speaker of the House of Commons should decide on which type of voting will be employed for various pieces of legislation, and, possibly, for different clauses in Bills.

In practice, given the workload of Parliament, that means his staff and the Clerks of the Commons, all highly skilled and learned people, are now entering uncharted territory. What happens if the SNP rejects the rulings of the Speaker and his staff is not clear. Observing their sometimes truculent behaviour such a confrontation may not be long in coming. It will be a testing moment for Mr Speaker Bercow.

The House of Lords is to see no change in its procedures, for obvious reasons; and yet many a Nationalist (and not just them) will wonder if it can be right that an unelected English peer can vote to amend or reject legislation that will have an impact in Scotland, most obviously in foreign and defence affairs, which remain UK-wide.

It is, however, far from the kind of comprehensive constitutional settlement that Britain needs. After decades of piecemeal, unco-ordinated and sometimes contradictory Acts of reform, the British Constitution has gone from being one of the great unwritten miracles of the world – smooth and reliable in operation though deeply democratically flawed – to being the hotchpotch of today. We have different voting systems at every level of government; we have a Fixed-term Parliaments Act ill-suited to the closer elections of recent times and which attempts to bind all future parliaments; we have a House of Lords stuck between its hereditary past and some sort of federal future; we have asymmetric devolution across regions and nations; we have the rules of government enshrined in a sort of manual produced by the Cabinet Office but not approved by Parliament; select committees hover between the effective and the decorative; and our human rights and place in Europe are being parked in a limbo land.

As is sometimes said, the British way of government was like a fine old watch mechanism; but various cogs in that intricate piece of machinery have been taken out, messed around with, and then wedged back in, with a variety of maladies and unintended consequences generated as a result. We will soon have the remarkable innovation of MPs being able to vote via tablets on laws; welcome though such modernisation is (and the salvation of many a forgetful or refreshed MP who wandered through the wrong lobby) the British Constitution needs to be brought up to date in many, more fundamental, respects.

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