Commentary by Derek Bateman
SNP: They’ve stopped Scottish MPs voting in Westminster on issues that only affect England.
Voter: Oh aye.
SNP: They will get a final say before anything becomes law but nevertheless…
Voter: So you say.
SNP: And they didn’t legislate for it, they used a statutory instrument to introduce it.
Voter: Is that the time? I’ve a bus to catch…
And who can blame him. A tweak to the rules in the Old Boys’ Club in a weak attempt to compensate for devolution is hardly the stuff to trigger insurrection. In fact some of the Nationalist hysteria is enough to induce a wry smile and a knowing wink – this is one we can build a grievance on.
Adjusting the rules to create the impression that things were being evened up for England should have happened years ago, but the House authorities never had the imagination or the nous to respond – after all they had the Unionist bloc to rely on when it came to the constitution and Labour always ultimately played their game.
There isn’t a voter from Yell to Yetholm who gives a tinker’s cuss about the arcane maneuverings of the Palace of Westminster. No sane person has anything but contempt for their self-serving, serpentine games and no sensate Scot could care less if the MP for Motherwell is denied a vote on grammar schools for Maidenhead.
As the SNP tiptoes through the daffodils of the Great Unwritten British Constitution © Magna Carta, they appear to have forgotten that they forfeited the moral ascendancy by breaching their own rule of omerta on England-only laws when they threatened to vote down the softening of fox hunting legislation.
It is surely a curious strategy too to protest that your voice is no longer heard when your specific selling point is that you are a stronger voice for Scotland…the metaphor is one of crying in the wilderness, so hardly the image of the all-powerful Sturgeonator.
We won’t play Westminster games, they said. We won’t fall into the Establishment trap. And yet here is engineered wrath at a Whitehall farce which exposes how lame the parliamentary system is at satisfying our democratic needs.
Why shouldn’t there be an English Grand Committee stage before a final vote? It still leaves the ultimate judgment in the hands of the whole House. It might mean that some legislation is simply dropped because it won’t get through the last stage but is something that doesn’t happen really likely to impact on Scotland?
There undoubtedly is an issue of funding consequentials but that has been partly met by excluding Estimates Resolutions which determine spending. The role of the Speaker will evolve because he will in effect have to decide what constitutes England-only law. (All that means is he’ll need his Weetabix from now on). To avoid tit-for-tat rebellions by Nationalists who could gum up the work of the House if they feel cheated, the Speaker will feel inclined to be generous in his interpretation of what is England only. (He seems in any case not to be flavour of the month with his own Conservative friends).
While the SNP fumes, the disgruntled English think they’re getting their own back, which is no bad thing. The poor things have had to put up with a lot of revolt from the Celtic peasants they allowed into their hallowed chamber.
It strikes a discordant note for them to complain they are second class MPs because English MPs get a Grand Committee, something Scotland has had since 1895. I’m afraid I am left distinctly cold by rows over procedures in the unrepresentative and medieval home of British democracy.
However…some points worth considering.
First is the enduring truth, discussed here previously, that the Commons has had an overwhelming, automatic and inbuilt English majority since Queen Anne bribed her way into the Union in 1707.
It is statistically impossible for any other part of the UK to outvote England – ever. There are 533 English constituency MPs and 117 from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. ‘England’ has an absolute majority and always will. What the Tories mean is that English Tory policies need a majority to go through, as opposed to simply English policies. If there was an issue of overriding English national interest – say Morris Dancing was to be made compulsory – it only needs English MPs to agree and it happens, irrespective of any other national viewpoint.
It is only because English MPs (unlike the current Scottish ones) can’t agree among themselves or, just as likely, can’t find an issue of genuine English national interest at all, that we pretend they don’t have total ownership of parliament. So, in reality, what the government is doing with EVEL is gerrymandering the system to suit itself.
Next comes the logical solution they refuse to countenance – federalism. With three nations acquiring elected chambers and England demanding autonomy, Britain is one step away from a federal state. The combined results of the referendum and the general election have written in huge graffiti on the wall of Downing Street a clear message…we are prepared to stay, but only if we have effective independence of operation. Home rule. Real devolution. A federal Scotland. The British state doesn’t have the intelligence nor the desire to deliver what people want.
Lastly, they are once again poking fingers into their own mousetrap. Like Laurel and Hardy, the British governing elite stumble from cock-up to catastrophe. Error compounds error. Their primary gene is condescension. Somewhere in the foundations of Britain and empire an unblinking self -belief was born, a collective myopia that was closed to the possibility of fallibility. You see it in blind incompetence throughout British history, from Chelmsford leading his men to Zulu slaughter at Isandlwana and the prelude to Rorke’s Drift, to Elphinstone’s retreat from Kabul when William Brydon was sole survivor, to today’s disastrous aftermath in Libya…all driven by a leadership class predominantly from the same social hierarchy and the same schools and universities.
My current read is 1776 by Thomas Fleming, an account of America’s belligerent departure from Britain’s embrace. It shows how a frightened, disunited and originally loyal population, many seeking reconciliation, was turned into a determined insurgent movement hell bent on independence by the arrogance and contempt of King George and his officers.
All the current crop of public schoolboys has done is create a new grievance, this time easily portrayed as a slight, a dismissal, of Scottish status at the very time the demand is for more, not less, empowerment. Rather than strengthening the Union, they have lit a fire within by allowing EVEL to be played out as a denial of democracy to Scots rather than an enhancement for England. And how will Unionists answer the emerging question of how a Scot might again be Prime Minister in a government he/she does not command totally?
This episode points in one direction – and presumably is the reason why the Nationalists are talking it up – and that is fracture. The creaking Union is now being wedged open from within by a cack-handed government that only understands its own selfish needs. They confirm the blinkered worldview, the lack of prescience and strategic thought of those who front the UK. The creaks and groans of dismemberment sound sweet indeed to a Nationalist.