Conservatives Promise “English Votes for English Laws”

Britain’s ruling party would give English lawmakers an effective veto over English policy.

Flags of England
Flags of England (Steven Lilley)

Britain’s ruling Conservative Party proposed on Thursday to give English lawmakers an effective veto over policies that only affect England, the largest part of the United Kingdom.

The plan makes good on Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to give England a “new and fair settlement” after he agreed to transfer additional competencies to Scotland last year.

But it falls short of what some Conservatives demanded.

William Hague, the former foreign secretary who now leads the party in the House of Commons, told the BBC his was a “fair solution.”

Under it, lawmakers from England, or England and Wales, would meet separately to consider bills that only affect education, health or tax policy in their respective parts of the United Kingdom before they proceed to a vote in the House of Commons. There, lawmakers from all parts of the country would be able to vote on them.

“It is just that they would only be able to pass measures relating only to England with the agreement of the English MPs,” said Hague.

“English MPs were never going to be given total control over English law,” according to James Landale, the BBC’s deputy political editor. “That would have created a de facto English Parliament that many MPs believe would have left the United Kingdom unworkable.”

Some Conservatives were nevertheless disappointed. So was the United Kingdom Independence Party which appeals to English nationalists and could deny the Conservatives a victory in May’s general election. “Cameron has spoken of English votes for English laws but these proposals will fail to deliver anything but chaos,” said deputy party leader Paul Nuttall.

The Scottish National Party, which advocates independence for Scotland, similarly rejected Hague’s plan as “confused and a bit shambolic.”

The Scottish nationalists lost a referendum on independence last year after British party leaders, including Cameron, promised to devolve more powers to the region, such as control over income tax and welfare policy.

Under a plan put out in November, the Scottish legislature is to get the authority to levy income taxes as well as air passenger duties and give out housing credits and winter fuel payments.

Scotland already controls its own education policy and, to a large extent, health care.

The transfer of more powers to Scotland made the so-called “West Lothian Question” — named after West Lothian representative Tam Dalyell who first raised the issue in 1977 — all the more pertinent. Scottish lawmakers in the House of Commons are able to vote on legislation that only concerns England and other parts of the United Kingdom while English lawmakers have no say over many Scottish affairs. Hague’s plan would go some way to addressing that situation which many English lawmakers say is plainly unfair.

Hague said his proposal was unlikely to become law before May’s election but would be in the Conservative Party manifesto.

The difficulty could be determining which legislative proposals are purely English. Hague said this should be up to the speaker of the House of Commons to decide but the Financial Times cautioned that the dispensation may “trigger endless disputes.” Few laws are exclusively English, according to the newspaper. “Any measure involving tax, hospitals and schools will inevitably have spillover effects north of the border.”

Labour is wary of giving English lawmakers any kind of veto because it would likely depend on members from Scotland to build a majority after the next election.

Which is why Hague’s plan is also politically convenient for the Conservatives, argued The Telegraph‘s Robert Colvile.

Labour may just win a majority in the next election. But it won’t win a majority in England. In 2010, the Conservatives beat the left there by three million votes.

“The Tories want to delegitimize any government that relies on Scottish MPs for a national majority,” according to Colvile. “If those Scottish MPs happen to be from the SNP, all the better.”

If the Scottish National Party wins several dozen seats in Westminster, it could possibly form a coalition government with Labour.

England is by far the biggest part of the United Kingdom. It has fifty out of sixty million people for Britain as a whole and accounts for two-thirds of its economy.

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