|Photo Credit: @JamesDoleman|
EVEL, thundered Iain MacWhirter in the Independent, isn't about Scotland: it's about locking Labour out of power in the UK. After an admirably precise and succinct run down of what the Commons standing order changes will and will not do, Iain argues that:
"... the next Labour Prime Minister could find that he or she is in office but not in power. This is because Tory MPs sitting in the English Grand Committee will have an effective veto on all legislation on domestic affairs. Say Labour tries to repeal the Health and Social Care Bill 2011 that increased the freedom of private firms to bid for NHS contracts.
MPs on the English Grand Committee could veto it on the grounds that this is an English only bill. It would leave UK Labour ministers for health, education and justice unable to implement the policies on which the government was elected. How could any prime minister pretend to govern when he or she can’t implement their manifesto pledges over 85 per cent of the UK population?"
Now, I realise the idea of a future Labour Prime Minister looks distinctly hypothetical at the moment, as Jeremy Corbyn allows his fractured opposition to drift, drift, drift. But just for the sake of argument, say that the 2020 UK general election throws up a majority of MPs from across the UK who are prepared to back a new Labour government over the Tory minority. What happens?
Reading MacWhirter, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are now stuck with EVEL, and that any future Labour government reliant on Scottish votes would be doomed. And so it would be, if the current EVEL scheme remained in force. But a critical point I neglected in yesterday's blog, and which Iain neglects in his Independent piece, is that if an anti-EVEL majority is elected to the Commons -- the new restrictions on the voting rights of Scottish MPs will evaporate tout suite. They will melt more swiftly than a sleet shower in summer.
"As every school student knows", our sovereign UK parliament can't bind its successors. And this is as true of parliamentary procedure as it is of primary legislation. A number of critics of the UK government have suggested that it is inappropriate to make fundamental constitutional changes like EVEL using parliamentary rules instead of primary legislation. I'm not so sure. As anyone who has attempted to follow the Scotland Bill well understands, primary legislation is generally a slow and - at least in principle - considered process. It takes time.
Changing parliament's standing orders, by contrast, requires only a majority in the Commons. You may well think the Tories' recent partisan procedural games are unseemly. STV's Stephen Daisley described them as "vulgar". But, it is actually much easier for a Commons majority to alter its standings orders than it is for a Commons majority to repeal or amend an Act of Parliament. There is no ping-pong with the House of Lords, no royal assent. A single, decisive Commons motion does the trick. Because of the bungling, ineptitude and blund-minded malice of Chris Grayling, the EVEL process has been long and drawn out, but it needn't have been so.
It needn't be so, if a new Labour government with pan-UK support and confidence reclaims Downing Street. Ah, but wouldn't they be crucified by the right-wing English tabloids if they even considered dumping EVEL? Maybe. Probably, even. But you never win the fights you don't pick. The political career of Gordon Brown remains a grisly reminder that you have to win the argument. It isn't enough to win office, and sleekitly to do good and right on the quiet.
Caught between the frying pan of EVEL and the fire of governing in England without power, any Labour leader worth their salt would - and could - use their UK majority to consign the "English vetoes for some English laws" experiment to the scrap heap. If you look at the text of the Standing Orders changes passed on Thursday, you'll see that EVEL is not an "England only" matter. It is for the whole House of Commons to decide how to structure its work. That will be as true in 2020 as it was this week.
Labour, Liberal and Nationalist members took to their pins in the chamber this week to argue the scheme was just plain wrong. The equality of MPs may not cause my viscera spontaneously to implode. EVEL may not do what many folk think it does. But folk like Pete Wishart and Tommy Shepperd at least have a defensible argument to make. So too would any future Labour government, entering office. They might well say something like this. "We are a unionist party. We are against anything and everything which imperils that Union. Anything which rubs salt into the divisions of this disunited Kingdom, we oppose. Our union remains a fragile thing. We are clumsy with it, at our peril." This isn't my politics, but it is not a bad argument.
Nothing lasts for ever. Not even EVEL.