Ed Miliband – remember him? – has just told the House of Commons that the government’s proposals for so-called English votes for English laws (EVEL) are a betrayal of everything for which the Conservative party is supposed to stand. Well, that’s certainly one way of putting it.
According to Miliband, EVEL is “not true to the great traditions of the Conservative and Unionist party” but since the foremost of those traditions is a keen and ruthless appreciation of the best interests of the Conservative party I suspect Miliband, not for the first time, misunderstands the Tory party.
“You’re the Conservative and Unionist party”, Miliband said. “This is neither for Conservatism nor Unionism.” There are grounds for disagreement on the latter point but, surely, none on the former. EVEL – even of the modest, watered-down beer type proposed by the government – is entirely for Conservatism. Not just for this parliament but for all parliaments to come. That’s the bloody point of it.
Which, of course, is also why the Labour party hates it. Because it would require a future Labour government to command a majority of English seats in order to legislate for English-only matters. (However – and this is a ticklish point – they are defined.)
Well, so be it. Perception matters in politics and many English people think they’re the subject of some (small, in my view) injustice. The days when the best answer to the West Lothian Question was to stop asking it have, for better – or more, likely, worse – gone. Something has to be done about it. Not because the English are scurrying off to Torches & Pitchforks R Us but because their low-level grumblings are based on a perfectly reasonable argument: if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may, to their varying degrees, legislate on matters pertaining solely to their domestic arrangements it is not so very appalling that the English have the same right to do so.
The SNP, always impressively flexible, now condemn a policy they once supported more keenly than any other party in the country. Nicola Sturgeon condemns the ‘disrespect’ shown to Scotland by these measures and suggests a modest dollop of EVEL means Westminster cannot ‘represent’ Scottish interests. Why, she even hints, albeit obliquely, these reforms could almost, you know, rise to the ‘material change in circumstance’ deemed necessary for another referendum on the national question.
Well, this too is a point of view though, really, is the suggestion that henceforth legislation to reform English secondary schools should be supported by a majority of English MPs really the kind of thing to spark a referendum? Come off it.
The First Minister’s chuntering about disrespect demonstrates the emaciated nature of her argument. When in doubt and if all else fails, remember that this is the Era of Hurt Feelings and do your best to manufacture a sense of victimhood, grievance and self-righteous indignation. It’s worked before and will work again so why not give it another go? (The SNP are hardly the only offenders in this regard, it should be stressed. They are merely experts at it.)
Be that as it may, it’s still bunk. As Alex Salmond told Total Politics a few years ago: “If you’re asking me should people in England be able to run their own health service or education system, my answer is yes. They should be able to do it without the bossy interference of Scots Labour MPs. We had that in reverse through the 1980s.”
And as my old friend Angus Robertson asked the Prime Minister in 2007: Is it not “completely iniquitous” that English MPs “are not able to decide on matters in Scotland but Scottish MPs from the UK parties can vote on matters which only impact on England. Why does he not join the SNP in abstaining on these issues?”
Will these vile Tories stop at nothing? Why, they stoop so low they will even agree with us. This must be an anti-Scottish plot. Because obviously.
The devil, of course, is in the detail but you cannot accuse the United Kingdom of rushing these matters. The same arguments were heard more than a century ago and while there is some difference between debates on Irish Home Rule and our current arguments the similarities, parallels and overlaps remain striking. A solution – or rather since it was never actually implemented – a theoretical solution was found then just as one can, and probably will, be bodged together now.
Granted, David Mundell’s suggestion EVEL will strengthen the United Kingdom seems uncharacteristically heroic. Then again, I don’t actually believe Middle Scotland is going to be outraged by a change to the standing orders of the House of Commons. Not least because opinion polls have regularly shown that Scots accept, and sometimes even endorse, the idea of some form of EVEL.
Perhaps that has changed as so much else has changed but I think it might be sensible to accept that some things aren’t worth being OUTRAGED by and I’d suggest that this modest set of proposals – modest since they won’t apply to finance bills or other legislation that has a financial impact – is one such trifle. At least for now.
Nevertheless, there comes a time when even best-ignored questions can no longer be ignored and this is one of those times. This is indeed a brutal power play from the Tories but, unless we have all lost our minds completely (a possibility it would be rash to rule out) there’s no logical reason why this should encourage, to borrow from Myles na Gopaleen, a still more virulent eruption of Jockish nationalism. Something that’s good enough for Scotland is more than good enough for England.