24 October 2015

EVEL: A Postscript

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.


  1. "if an anti-EVEL majority is elected to the Commons..."

    A rather big 'IF' there since Labour shows no signs of even a serious attempt to regain Scottish votes. I strongly believe they would have to win in 2020 with a still sharply reduced number of MPs in Scotland, possibly by selling themselves in England by selling themselves as pro-England as the Tories.

    What then your supposition?

    You are counting on something that is unlikely to happen on two counts. 1. That you can count on Labour to do the right thing for Scotland and the even bigger stretch 2. That Labour will win in 2020.

    If they don't, as is highly, HIGHLY likely, then EVEL is in force for a minimum of a decade.

    1. An anti-EVEL manifesto is likely to reduce the chances of an anti-EVEL majority in the Commons. To approximately zero. Binding or not binding successor Governments is irrelevant - if you stop them getting elected in the first place.

  2. Also frustratingly vague as its talk of constitutional conventions is, Labour is committed to wide-ranging constitutional reform and would if competent (admittedly not something one can automatically assume any more) frame any change to EVEL as part of a new deal for the English regions.

  3. Question is of course would Labour do so if it means SNP getting more say in WM. Don't underestimate their in built self destructiveness.

  4. We saw that the Tories used the threat of the SNP and the Scots to hammer Labour in the Westminster election, they'll do the same next time to reinforce the message that if Labour reverse EVEL they'll somehow be destroying English democracy, an illegitimate betrayal to appease subsidy-junkie foreigners.

    I can only see EVEL strengthened rather than got rid of. You're right that few people understand how EVEL actually works, so when the English finally cotton on that the evil dastardly Scots are still voting on things that "don't concern them", that the West Lothian Question is still not solved, then we're back to square one, and English 'greivances' will have to be readdessed - not by giving them their own parliament but instead voting will be totally banned for non-English MPs or there will be a positive-vote to force legislation through to go along with the current negative-veto.

    1. I absolutely agree with this, and it's a point Andrew hasn't taken issue with.

      EVEL has been reinforced within the English press and presented as 'democracy for England'. This is how it is viewed by the Southern electorate and one whiff of changing that could be suicide for any party pledging to reverse it in a future election manifesto.

      That's one real life scenario.

      Another is this. Say Labour do get elected in 2020 and have a majority in English seats. Scotland sees equal numbers of SNP and Labour elected. Labour decide to renege on their promise of reversing EVEL because it has become a toxic subject for English voters even though they require the Scottish Labour votes to hold sway over Westminster. Are Labour's Scottish MP's going to rebel and start voting alongside the SNP ? I doubt it. Party first with Labour, country second.

      Labour have reversed key policy areas before, who's to say it won't happen again.

      'Democracy for England and another grievance for the SNP' bleated out the BBC the other day. While EVEL could be reversed, it's being made into such a toxic arena by the press that even to go near it could prove political suicide with the electorate.

      The other issue I have with Andrew's posts are that any of the real life examples he gives do not include money. I can foresee sticky situations ahead over Income Tax. What happens when Income Tax is devolved to Scotland but we can't effectively use it because we are restricted applying increases or decreases to specific bands - therefore tying us to the tax regimes set south of the border. Is there not a scenario where a vote in the Commons on Income Tax that will affect Scottish taxes set at Holyrood in real life, see Scots MP's banned from having a vote ?

      Sure, any government can raise and lower taxes as they like, but isn't being able to have your say all part of democracy ? You might not be able to change policy, but being able to stand up and address the government on behalf of the constituents that elected you is a key element of democracy.

      What is far from clear is how EVEL will be viewed by the English electorate in the coming years, and exactly how it will be used by the Tories. I think it's foolish to write it off completely as harmless.

  5. IF we have another referendum before 2020 then we can still use the EVEL as an argument against unionism. It will be an ideal argument for why we need to go our own way from Westminster. It is a naked move against us and NI and Wales by making our MPs second class.

    Also IF Labour win a majority next time with English only MPs will they definitely repeal it in the face of tabloid outrage? As you say, why pick fights that even winning will not benefit you? I will make that argument on doorsteps/street stalls as well. Labour has for too long promised much and delivered little and their trust here in Scotland is horrendously low as the polls show.

    So those two arguments together could well move people towards Yes.

  6. An interesting comment left on my blog, which I couldn't think of a decent response to:
    I still don't see how there can be an English law at all.

    Suppose you pass a law that just establishes a new steering group that meets quarterly to discuss education in England, and it costs £20 per year to provide tea and biscuits for that meeting.

    That £20 can't come out of the English budget -- because there's no such thing. It can't be added to English government borrowing -- because there's no such thing.

    And it can't be funded from English taxation -- because there's no such thing. So it can only come from national borrowing, national taxation, or cuts from the national budget, and so it's a national bill and not English bill.

    The only laws that can even possibly be English laws are ones that are exactly revenue-neutral, to the nearest pound, and make no difference whatsoever to government spending. And I fail to see how any law that does anything can not cost some money somewhere.

  7. I'm slightly bewildered because I'm not aware of any other model for this system in the whole world - please correct me if I'm wrong. So the Brits have just invented a system that no one else has tried? If the inventors wanted something that would make the country work constitutionally, they'd probably have used a model. If they wanted something based on a painting by numbers Machiavelli beginners kit, they'd have come up with EVEL.

  8. Lots of analysis of the implementation of EVEL and potential constitutional ramifications.
    But why have they done it - now there's the rub. They are a sleekit clever self-centred bunch. What's down track? How will they use it? Is it just an opening gambit? What don't we know?

  9. It seems to me that the SNP know they can make a good run emphasizing the evil of EVEL. They know the Tories are on (to use their vernacular) a sticky wicket. Scotland's much vaunted new powers are a joke - but they must act and talk as if they are true and great, similarly EVEL is a joke, but they cannot deny the power of either without looking like the snake oil salesmen they are.


  10. The fact is that the UK has always got the government that England votes for. Only twice in the 20th century did Scotland's voting make a difference to the outcome of a UK general election. Both were to weak, unstable, minority governments.

    So if Labour want to govern, they need a majority in England. As they had in 2005 and 2001, and on almost every occasion they formed a government.

    So LPW is right; they could reverse EVEL if they came to power, because they can only realistically come to power by winning in England.

    But, LPW, you assume that they would want to. And that's a big assumption. English nationalism is rising and not just in the Tory party.

  11. We are, I think, well able to distinguish between the intention and its realisation. We can be aware of the purpose of a measure whilst appreciating that it is not particularly effective in achieving the desired outcome, or any part thereof. We can be aware of malicious motives even while acknowledging that no actual harm has ensued.

    And we are as entitled to judge intent, purpose and mindset as we are the actions that follow from them.

    As we would expect, Lallands Peat Worrier makes a reasonable and relevant observation. He does not, I am certain, essay an argument in mitigation.

  12. Peatworrier, I think you've made the mistake of overlooking the rise of English nationalism, something the Tory party is counting on.

    Yes, you are correct in saying that EVEL could be overturned in future, but if the Labour party even breath a hint of repealing EVEL in a future General Election, then the Tories will present themselves as the champions of English democracy.

    This will go down well in the Home Counties.

    The Tories have calculated that not only is Scotland lost to them, but the boundary changes in England, plus EVEL, guarantees Tory dominance for years to come...

    1. We know that the Tories are adept at setting such traps. Look at the latest round of constitutional tinkering.

  13. The plain fact is that England is not injured by the West Lothian question issue.

    The House of Commons Library research showed that of c.3800 divisions taking place since 2001, the outcome was decided by votes of Scottish MPs on only 25 occasions.

    And, since 'England-only' legislation is rare, what % of those 25 occasions related to England-only legislation is likely to have been far less than that.

    The West Lothian question has always been spurious and raised only to create mischief.

    By Scots like Tam Dalyell.

  14. How with the Bercow factor play out? Will the ego land or will Tory kryptonite prevail.
    We may have a new speaker to serve the new Tory Boy feeling of indistructability.
    Remember the attempted coup in the dawning of the last parliamentary session.
    They have a cunning plan me thinks.

  15. Hmm...from the point of view of law, you are correct. However, the politics of it might be a great deal harder to sell. If, say, a theoretical Labour majority heavily based on Scottish MPs (unlikely, I know, but then so were 56 SNP members until it happened) attempted to repeal EVEL over the wishes of a majority of English members, that could cause serious problems. Remember, Labour spent decades ignoring the needs of Scotland because they only cared about their support in England.

  16. The fight now is between two crypto-nationalist Parties in England--Tories and UKIP, and Labour, many of whose members want an explicitly English Party. Inadvertently assisted by Dugdale beating her Scottish drum.
    Labour has been left behind by Osborne's "Northern" narrative, so expect an increasingly Anglo-centric focus on the 2020 election.
    If we also think where the focus will lie in the EU referendum, the SNP should be delighted with "events"!

  17. Dead easy.

    Any non-Tory government (e.g. a Labour minority supported by "others") includes just enough fluff to ensure any Bill is not pure EVEL. Fishing rights in the Coldstream or the Vyrnwy would do it.

  18. EVEL may be a tentative beginning towards an English parlaiment. Isn't it time for an English parliament, entirely separate from Westminster, elected by PR? You can't have a quasi-federal state if the largest part doesn't have devolved powers. Should an English parliament come into being, it will probably hasten the break-up of the UK as England rediscovers itself as a nation.

  19. It seems to me this procedural change can never actually have any effect. There are two mutually exclusive possibilities:

    1. The ruling party has a majority in parliament with English MPs alone, like the current government. They can enforce EVEL, but while they are in power, it is meaningless, because no legislation affecting only England could be passed without their consent oanyhoo.
    2. The ruling party does not have a majority in parliament with English MPs alone. Then they would scrap EVEL using the mechanisms explained by the Peat Worrier.

    Therefore EVEL is utterly meaningless posturing, and a political bullet in the foot for the Tories, as it will only recruit to the independence cause.