By John Baron MP
All options regarding 'English Votes for English Laws' (Evel) are sadly a step closer to weakening the Union. None address the financial complexities that bind the Union, and none will prove to be a lasting solution. But the marginal advantage of William Hague's preferred approach is that, whilst allowing MPs from England, or England and Wales, a veto, it avoids creating two classes of MP by allowing all to vote in the first and final stages of a bill's progress.
This is important when considering options for the future. The present choices are fudges resulting from a poorly-fought 'No' campaign and a hasty reaction to the result. No one party owns the British constitution. So time is required to engineer a buy-in from across the political spectrum to any new settlement – otherwise, it will lack credibility and not prove lasting.
We need time to recognise that the concept of Evel is in fact legislatively incoherent. It will be difficult to construct election manifestos or advocate policies if parties cannot be sure of delivery, either because of the performance of smaller parties in Scotland, or because, depending on the make-up of English MPs, such policies may be vetoed in the south.
Evel does not address the many financial links tying Scotland to the UK. The Barnett formula remains in place – this being the issue constituents raise, if they raise it at all. The majority of Holyrood's revenue would still come from Westminster, even if Scotland kept all of its income tax.
Spending decisions south of the border will therefore affect spending patterns to the north. A cut in NHS spending in England will impact on the NHS in Scotland. No wonder the SNP has said it will not abstain on such matters – a perfectly logical position from their perspective. There are very few specific 'English' issues when it comes to public spending.
Evel is a separatist measure, regardless of the options. But at least Hague's approach is the least separatist of all. It is the least divisive. I expect the SNP to be a separatist party – such is their raison d'être. But I don’t expect the Conservative and Unionist party to follow suit. Blocking all non-English MPs from voting on English-only matters would in particular play into the hands of the separatists.
We need a course of action which causes least harm, whilst we take time to explore ways of bringing the Union closer together. We need to remember that the vast majority of the people of our Union want to stay united. Pursuing policies which can be best exploited by the SNP is not the best way to serve that Union.
When discussing the matter at a recent party meeting, a number of us made the point that, in supporting a 'veto vote' for English MPs that nevertheless gives the whole Commons the final say, we should remember asymmetry has traditionally been the price England pays to ensure Scotland stays in the Union. During the 19th century and early 20th century we decided not to pay that price when it came to Ireland – and the Union suffered as a result.
John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay
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