Managing England’s unions: the Conservatives’ challenge

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As the European referendum comes to loom ever larger in British politics, it is apparent that a number of distinct, pulsating national questions will do much to affect its outcome. For a start, divergent views on this issue may well lead to the exacerbation of territorial tensions across the UK, should an ‘out’ vote be the majority preference of the English, but not the other nations of the UK.

A less discussed but also far-reaching outcome arises from a scenario where the English are divided, but a majority vote to leave, while the choices of the Scots, Northern Irish and Welsh result in a narrow majority for staying in. This too would have ramifications, potentially creating the conditions for a new surge in support for Ukip and hardening the English stance on questions such as the distribution of public spending across the UK.

This result would open the way for English nationalists to ask why English wishes are not taken into account when it comes to the existential question of EU membership. This question would appear particularly pressing given that English preferences are more obviously considered in Westminster as a result of the government’s introduction of ‘English votes on English laws’ (EVEL) in the Commons. Rather strikingly, the government’s call for greater subsidiarity within the EU is assumed not to extend to the various layers of governance that have grown up within the UK, though quite why this should be so remains something of a mystery.

The Conservative government is undoubtedly aware of how intertwined the European and national questions have become, not least as its response to them arises in the context of the considerable pressure exerted by Ukip. Indeed, Cameron’s political strategy for this parliament reflects a determination to harness a developing pattern of national disgruntlement among the English, to make noises about changing the terms of the unions to which England belongs, while at the same time ensuring that both current settlements remain intact. But achieving all these goals is far from easy.

The government contemplates the historically unprecedented challenge of attempting simultaneously to re-negotiate England’s constitutional position within both the EU and the United Kingdom. The latter project has been pursued via the controversial reforms it has introduced to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. These offer MPs in England (or, where relevant, England and Wales) an unprecedented veto right over Bills and clauses within legislation that affect England alone. This complicated set of procedural changes represent the government’s answer to the beguilingly attractive principle of ‘English Votes for English Laws’.

Pursuing these different national projects means that the government has to yoke together two increasingly divergent territorial languages. One of these reflects the tradition of the sovereignty of the parliamentary state, and the other speaks to growing English desire for devolution and territorial protection.

When it comes to Europe, the government needs to emphasise the interests of the UK as a whole, using the familiar language of UK-wide statehood, national exceptionalism and parliamentary sovereignty as it sets out its demands to its sceptical European partners. But when it comes to EVEL, while Minister Chris Grayling has made emollient noises about the benefits for all of re-balancing the union, the government speaks a very different kind of national language, which sits awkwardly with the constitutional conservatism which the Conservatives have long championed.

Can the government simultaneously defend a traditional version of UK sovereignty and maintain a complicated and constitutionally ambiguous change to the Lower House designed to demarcate and protect English interests? Can it do so when its parliamentary majority is slender, and both of these issues can generate discord within its ranks? The answers to these questions will do much to shape the politics of the next few years in the UK.

One of these issues looks, at face value, a lot more challenging than the other. Carrying out a reasonably effective renegotiation with other European member states, securing symbolic concessions on iconic issues like the free movement of labour, and then securing a victory in the subsequent referendum are clearly challenges of the first order.

But while EVEL may look like the less bumpy road, it too has its potential pitfalls. The changes to Standing Orders have now been passed by a whipped vote in the Commons. But the government’s initial proposals were assailed by those who regard these changes as the thin edge of a dangerous territorial wedge, those who see them as driven by low politics rather than high principle, and Conservatives who see them as a rather diluted and ineffective answer to the question of English devolution

There is a chance that EVEL will disappear from political view for much of this parliament, because the primary scenario with which this mechanism is intended to deal – a UK government that does not carry a majority of English MPs — will not apply until 2020 at the earliest. But it would be wrong to assume that this is necessarily so.

Several problems remain unresolved by this complex and cumbersome set of proposals and may well come back to haunt the government. One concerns the potential for conflict with the Speaker’s office, given that the Speaker will need to be seen to make independent judgements about certification, and may not always follow government recommendations on the territorial designation of specific clauses. Opposition parties, notably the SNP, may well also protest loudly and vigorously against particular decisions he makes.

A second problem concerns the notion that these changes are a let-down, a view championed by those who wanted a more wholehearted and clear-cut implementation of this principle. This mood has been accentuated by the government’s apparent decision to withdraw its proposals on Sunday trading which the SNP threatened to oppose. As a result, while English MPs can now veto legislation that affects England, they cannot initiate bills, and all legislation still requires the support of a majority across the House to pass (a point overlooked by some of the more critical responses to these proposals). This means that the sizeable cohort of SNP MPs retain a considerable influence upon the government’s legislative ambitions.

The political and policy challenges involved in seeking to re-configure England’s position within both the European Union and the United Kingdom should not be under-estimated. By choosing to pursue these two different projects at the same time, the government is implicitly making the question and shifting character of English national sentiment one of the major themes in British politics.

By Professor Michael Kenny is Fellow of the Centre on Constitutional Change, and Director of the Mile End Institute, Queen Mary University of London, UK. He is currently leading a project, supported by the CCC and the Economic and Social Research Council, on ‘English votes for English laws’.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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