Britain’s English Problem

In the light of the recent vote on English Votes for English Laws, a consideration of Britain’s long-running constitutional question.

David Knowles | Published 02 November 2015

St George's flag flying on Leeds Town Hall (2009). Photo by Michael Taylor, published under Creative Commons 3.0 Licence.
St George's flag flying on Leeds Town Hall (2009). Photo by Michael Taylor, published under Creative Commons 3.0 Licence.

There is a dangerous fault line running through British politics. It has haunted our politicians for decades and no party has ever been able to deal with it satisfactorily. 

We know it best as the ‘West Lothian Question’ first raised in its modern form (Gladstone had noted similar problems with Irish Home Rule in the 1880s) in 1977 by the Labour MP Tam Dalyell. He questioned the logic of the fact that, while Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs could vote on England-only matters, English MPs could not vote on issues reserved to the devolved legislatures. The current manifestation of this age-old problem is called EVEL (English Votes for English Laws), a change to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons which last week was voted through by MPsThe brainchild of Prime Minister David Cameron and House of Commons Leader William Hague and conceived shortly after the Scottish Referendum, EVEL introduces a new committee phase of the legislative process in which English and Welsh MPs may alone vote on legislation that affects their constituencies. 

The central issue is obvious, the Union is top-heavy, with the population of England vastly outnumbering those of its smaller neighbours. This fact is reflected in the House of Commons. In 2010 there were 533 MPs from England, 59 from Scotland, 40 from Wales and 18 from Northern Ireland. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs worry about being overruled by the larger English bloc while English MPs resent what some see as interference in England-only matters. The Scottish National Party reacted furiously to the change, arguing that it created two classes of MPs and compromised the ability of SNP MPs to represent their constituents. 

For unionist politicians balancing the right of the English to be heard without deafening everyone else is a fiendishly difficult problem. Finding a workable balance, especially in the wake of the seismic Scottish Referendum, is key to ensuring the Union’s survival. Given the number of interests and parties, it is unsurprising that a solution acceptable to absolutely everyone has never been found: the SNP’s current reaction to EVEL has been, to put it mildly, rather negative. 

Oddly, it is partly the success of the United Kingdom over hundreds of years which has led to EVEL remaining a problem. Aside from the Blitz and the heart-stopping weeks in World War II when the English channel and the RAF were all that stood between Hitler and London, the British state has not come close to extinction since the time of Napoleon. 

In one sense, of course, this is something to be thankful for. The British have not known occupation, deportation or oppression for hundreds and hundreds of years. However, the absence of such moments of national death and rebirth might explain why we are still dogged by disputes like the West Lothian Question. 

The United Kingdom has never had one clear moment of national definition (like the French Revolution or the American Revolution), in which lawmakers and experts could wipe the slate clean and draw up an entirely new constitution fit for the age. Rather, our un-codified constitution, legislatures and laws have developed little by little, reactive and ever-shifting: always moving slightly behind the times and altering to reflect the changing wishes of the population.

In contemporary Britain we often feel the strength this longevity and history gives us: no American style ‘second amendment’ battles for British voters. 

But the very existence of EVEL shows up the weaknesses too. Larger problems, rather than being tackled head-on, are ducked, ignored, deliberately and desperately forgotten about until they have become too big to ignore. Politicians have often looked for inspiration from British history when searching for answers. 

In the face of the possible break away of Ireland in 1911, Winston Churchill proposed, as well as establishing parliaments for Scotland, Wales and Ireland, to divide England into seven areas with autonomous legislative and administrative bodies. This notion of dividing England into seven looks back further in time, to the ancient division of the kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England, the heptarchy. The introduction of such a system, as Romantic and as symbolically satisfying as it feels to its champions, is a long way off. 

It is telling that even Churchill, one of the greatest parliamentarians of the 20th century, could make no head-way with his plans to finally solve the problem of ruling fairly a lop-sided union. Governing the United Kingdom with its traditions, history, differences and centuries worth of accumulated constitutional baggage is a complex and sensitive challenge. 

The passing of EVEL is unlikely to be the final word in the on-running battle for the Union. While America wrote their constitution and France had a revolution it is perhaps unsurprising that the British response to a long running constitutional question is to tweak the Standing Orders.

David Knowles is a graduate in Theology from University College, Durham. Follow him on Twitter @djknowles22.

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