If Scotland does eventually leave the United Kingdom, it may well be that future historians underline in the process leading to independence the reaction of David Cameron to the result of the Scottish referendum on 18th September 2014.
His enthusiastic welcome of the result was unsurprising and unobjectionable. There are those in his Conservative Party who would not be sorry to see the end of Scotland as a part of the United Kingdom, but Mr Cameron is not one of them.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister saw fit after the referendum to link further future progress in devolving powers to Scotland – the basis on which the referendum had been won for the Unionist cause – to a complex and tangential issue, that of “English Votes for English Laws (EVEL).”
That Mr Cameron should have put such store by this issue in his immediate reaction to the result of the referendum bodes ill for the capacity of the Westminster establishment to make the leap of intellectual and political imagination which will be necessary to turn the positive result of the Scottish referendum into a lasting constitutional settlement preserving the integrity of the United Kingdom.
There is certainly a case to be made for the proposition that there is an anomaly in the present system at Westminster, whereby MPs elected from constituencies in Scotland debate and vote on matters that, because of devolution arrangements, do not impact directly upon their constituents. At the same time, MPs from outside Scotland are restrained by convention (although not in law) from discussing or voting on those same issues in as far as they impact upon Scotland.
If, in the context of a more general constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom, a way can be found to soften this anomaly, so much the better. But this is not an issue that can be considered in isolation. Attempts to do so lead inevitably to technical controversy and complexity, and betray an underlying approach to the Union’s future workings that may well end up destroying the consensual basis of that Union.
It is a familiar criticism of EVEL that it will introduce a new focus for political controversy – one that involves the classification of legislation. It will be plausibly argued that much supposedly ‘English’ legislation has implications – direct or indirect – beyond its territorial designation. Fears may well be expressed that EVEL is creating a backdoor mechanism whereby England can impose itself on the remainder of the UK without consulting it.
The only way in which such an outcome could be avoided would be so restrictive a definition of “English-only” laws that very few legislative texts would fall under this rubric. That of course would defeat much of the supposed purpose of the exercise. Particular complications would arise under EVEL in relation to the financing of the devolved institutions. Under the ‘Barnett Formula,” changes in designated areas of funding in England determine the amount by which the central financing of devolution also alters. If under EVEL, ‘English’ MPs have a special role in determining the ‘English’ budget, that will mean that, indirectly, they have an enhanced position in determining devolved finances. It is difficult to see this as being acceptable to Scottish popular or political opinion.
It is, however, not the technical difficulties involved in the concept of EVEL that should be most disturbing to those concerned to preserve the United Kingdom. It is the Anglo-centric small-mindedness proclaiming that if the troublesome Scots have received some national devolutionary “concessions,” then “the English” should receive similar concessions to ensure that their Scottish neighbours do not steal a march on them or receive an unmerited advantage. This small-mindedness is matched by an unattractive electoral preoccupation of the two main Westminster parties.
Mr Cameron certainly hoped to please his Conservative base and pre-empt the English nationalism of UKIP by stressing his commitment to EVEL. Labour’s hostility to EVEL was until the General Election to some extent conditioned by its desire to retain the greatest possible power and influence for its (then) many elected MPs from Scotland. Truckling to English nationalism and electoral opportunism are hardly robust foundations on which to build a new constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom.
British politicians have often, if not always accurately, prided themselves on their “pragmatism,” by which they have usually meant to express a horror of systematic and long-term thinking, particularly on constitutional issues. But it may well be that systematic and long-term thinking on constitutional issues (and generous systematic thinking at that) is the only way now to save the United Kingdom from fragmentation. If the underlying constitutional order of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, is sound then the anomaly supposedly addressed by EVEL will either go away or be bearable. That certain sections of English opinion should affect to regard the present situation as unbearable is no good augury for the future of the United Kingdom.