"English votes for English laws" is the resurrection of a policy that failed over Irish home ruleby Jack Straw / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
In the 1955 general election, the Conservative party not only won a majority of seats in Scotland but also a majority of the votes—the only time that has been achieved by any political party since the war. Today, it is impossible to imagine such an outcome. The Tories are barely represented in Scotland and Wales, and despite sporadic advances in English local elections, are conspicuous by their absence in the great northern cities. This situation is now affecting the party’s psychology. The Conservatives are in danger of becoming a party of narrow English nationalism.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the party’s attitude to devolution and its policy of English votes for English laws. This is the Conservative answer to the so-called “West Lothian question,” named after the constituency represented by Tam Dalyell. He famously asked whether, after devolution, it was justifiable for Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish MPs to vote on all issues before the British parliament, when MPs representing English constituencies would not be able to vote on devolved matters.
“English votes for English laws” is the resurrection of a policy that first surfaced with the Irish home rule proposals of the 19th century. It may sound like a beguilingly simple solution—the premise being that only MPs representing English constituencies should be allowed to vote on specifically English business. But the proposal is unworkable: it would fatally undermine the Westminster parliament and irrevocably fracture the union.
It is first worth asking why this has become such an urgent issue for the Conservative party, when for most of the 20th century it raised no objection to the position of Northern Irish MPs in Westminster, despite the fact that the Government of Ireland Act 1920 established virtually the same devolved powers for Northern Ireland as the Scotland Act 1998 established for Scotland. Could it be, as John Sewel of Aberdeen University has asked, “that the period of deafening silence was quite simply because the Conservative party was in formal alliance with the Ulster Unionist party?”
On one of the few occasions when the Conservatives spoke out on this issue, it was to support the full involvement of Northern Irish MPs. This was in 1965, at a time when Harold Wilson was unhappy at Ulster Unionist MPs joining the Tories in voting against steel nationalisation when the bill related…