THE BLOG

Federalism or Federacy: Some Consequences of 'English Votes for English Laws'

21/02/2012 18:16 GMT | Updated 21/04/2012 10:12 BST

Tim Montgomery and George Eaton both advocated "English votes for English laws' in articles for the Guardian and New Statesman this week, a proposal first raised by William Hague in 1999.

The suggestion that only English, or English and Welsh, MPs should vote on matters that concern only their countries has obvious advantages. Much of the clamour for devolution was exacerbated not so much by nationalism as by the fact that the votes of English Conservative MPs were able to force legislation (such as the Poll Tax) on a Scotland in which left leaning parties predominated. This is a grievance that England is entitled to feel, in reverse, where English legislation is passed only because of the votes of Scottish MPs.

There is, though, little appetite for an English Parliament not located in Westminster, which would divorce the Parliament of England from its ancient home. Why the need for two sets of English MPs (at an English and a UK Parliament) when Westminster spends most of its time debating Bills affecting only England? It would not be difficult, on the other hand, for Parliament to set aside 'English days' for legislation not affecting Scotland and standing orders preventing Scottish MPs voting on English matters but, perhaps, allowing them to speak in such debates.

Yet such a settlement poses three critical questions. How would the Government operate where there was an English majority (or the absence thereof) in opposition to the UK majority in Parliament? How would Wales be affected? And what would be the role of the House of Lords in legislation affecting only England?

The UK Government would remain the Government of England and Wales where English and British majorities were aligned, when Britain would remain a 'Federacy', a country in which outlying nations have more devolution than the centre. Yet where a Party with a UK majority did not have an overall majority of English MPs, it would be impossible to avoid a devolved English government and First Minister. The UK government would otherwise simply not have the confidence of MPs qualified to vote on the majority of its legislative programme.

Some Cabinet positions and departments (for example Education and DEFRA) could be transferred to the English cabinet without the need for a ministerial equivalent in the UK Government. Others (Transport and Energy) have some 'federal' powers, but are mostly responsible only for England. Their UK responsibilities could either be devolved or put within one Federal Ministry.

An English Cabinet would need an English First Minister with an administrative headquarters distinct from Downing Street; and we would become familiar with the Treasury bench filled with alternating Ministers. An eccentric arrangement perhaps, but a constitution pragmatic enough to house its supreme court in Parliament until 2009 is probably flexible enough to cope. It is also worth noting that rarely will there be an English Conservative First Minister and a British Labour Premier: there has not been a Conservative majority in England and a Labour majority in the United Kingdom for thirty years, though there would now be a majority Conservative Government in England had such reforms been introduced before 2010.

Wales's legislative responsibilities do not mirror those of Scotland; although the only notable difference is in Home Affairs, where the English and Welsh legal system demands a department responsible for both countries. In reality, a Party with an English majority would almost always have a majority in Wales and England combined (this has easily been the case for well over thirty years). If it did not, a pragmatic solution would be forced upon the two governments were only English and Welsh MPs able to vote on these matters: the Minister would be unable to act without the confidence of English and Welsh MPs and the English Government's policies would have to be tailored accordingly.

The final issue that appears to have been given little thought is the position of the House of Lords. Anyone who has taken a close interest in the legislative process at Westminster will understand why there is such little appetite for a unicameral system. The House of Lords gets into the limelight only where there is a confrontation with the Commons. What is less publicised is its day influence on legislation. (A good account of this influence in the last Parliament can be found here.) A revising chamber, prepared to use its rich well of knowledge and experience in the Lords to ask the democratic house to stop and thing, is a great asset of the British constitutional settlement. Given that the Upper House has no veto over legislation and abides by the Salisbury Convention, there is no reason why English legislation could not continue to be subject to the revising chamber.

A more radical settlement - for example a Federal Parliament in what is now the House of Lords and an English Parliament in the House of Commons - might benefit from the neatness of a proper federal solution. Yet such a system would be far more likely to result in tension between England and the Federal Parliament than one in which one Chamber was responsible for both English and British affairs.

Interest in a solution to the West Lothian question is long overdue. The increasing English disenchantment with the Union makes it is more important than ever that it is addressed. English votes for English laws would be no panacea, but it is a pragmatic, organic change that might represent the best means of dealing with an English democratic deficit whose danger has been overlooked for too long.