This week saw the first use of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) in the Commons, marking the start of a new chapter in Westminster politics. EVEL got its outing during the vote on certain aspects of the Government’s controversial Housing Bill, with Scottish MPs excluded from the vote. Why are we bothering you with this exciting news? Because it’s important for two reasons. Firstly, by restricting votes to only English and Welsh MPs (and provision exists for the Welsh to be kicked out too if Wales isn’t affected by the legislation) the Government’s majority rocketed upwards. The Tories have a huge English majority and by stopping their Parliamentary opponents in the nations voting it makes it much easier for the PM to push through his legislation. Expect to see more English-only provisions, even on UK-wide laws, to help cement the Government’s otherwise wafer-thin majority.
The second implication – for the UK’s constitution – are less clear. The SNP’s Pete Wishart decried that EVEL was “driving the Scottish out of the door,” something he should surely welcome as a leading advocate of an independent Scotland. For those wishing to hold the Union together EVEL is a tricky one as it underlines the second class status of MPs from the nations. It all helps the SNP case for a second Independence referendum. Anything that knocks the English, and furthers the argument that Scotland is a victim of Westminster fixes, will do Nicola Sturgeon no harm in the run up to May’s Scottish Parliament elections and the expected Nationalist victory.
With fortuitous timing, Labour MP Toby Perkins, also tabled a motion this week to give the English a separate national anthem to the United Kingdom. Not quite a constitutional earthquake on the scale of EVEL but nonetheless another opportunity for our MPs to come out in their flag waving best. Why should England have the same national anthem as Britain, if Scotland and Wales have different ones? (Dear readers, ignore the fact that Northern Ireland has the same anthem as the UK for the purposes of this debate else it gets very complicated indeed.) Despite impassioned pleas for Jerusalem and Swing Low Sweet Chariot, the motion fell. The debate over national anthems and EVEL all betray the confused nature of the UK constitutional settlement. It’s been built piecemeal over many centuries and continues to be rewritten, prodded and poked at. Toby Perkins might not have won his vote this time but he’s onto something – the English are asserting themselves and the politicians that can tap into this will reap the rewards. God save the Queen!