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EVEL is not evil

When I was a student in England, I never once came across an English person who was demanding an English Parliament or English devolution. Likewise no-one ever complained that England was outvoted by the other parts of the UK. Of course, given England’s population such a result is unlikely, but it has happened and it may well happen again. The point is that everyone I knew viewed the UK as a whole and accepted the majority view that prevailed in the whole. If you don’t take that view, then you are already siding with the nationalists.

I opposed devolution and I still have mixed feelings about it. But it’s here and it’s here to stay. The crucial thing then from a Pro UK point of view is to make it work for the benefit of all the parts of the UK and the whole of the UK viewed as one thing. Of course, this is not how the nationalists see the purpose of devolution. For them it serves as a route to independence. It’s above all for this reason that they don’t want it to work and work fairly.

We are still in the very early stages of the process of devolving still more power to Scotland. Lots of SNP supporters have complained that the Scottish Parliament has not been given enough powers. This is natural enough, after all they don’t want devolution. They want independence. But even some people who support the continued existence of the UK, have been arguing that we have not been given so called “Devo max”.

Words like “Devo max” and “Home rule” are frequently used without anyone quite knowing what they mean. Well assuming that they are not just substitute words for independence, they must mean devolution within the context of a continuing UK such that this is at the maximum level possible. If devolution were given to such an extent that it caved into independence, this would not be “Devo-max”, but rather independence later.

Home rule is about controlling those issues that only affect Scotland, while the UK parliament controls those issues that we share. But this is pretty much where we are now, or at least where we soon will be. Scotland already controls most of the issues that only affect Scotland. The only things we don’t control are macro-economic policy, defence and foreign relations. Which area of policy that only affects Scotland is still controlled by Westminster? I can’t think of one. Shared institutions like the BBC are not controlled by Scotland, precisely because they are shared.

Scotland will soon have many more financial powers. Of course, there is a limit to these powers. If there were not, Scotland would be independent. The UK can only control macro-economic policy if it can, at least in part, influence the economic activity of the parts of the UK. For example, a macro-economic policy of reducing the UK’s deficit depends on cooperation across the UK.

The reality is that Scotland will have really quite extensive new powers very soon. Why isn’t the UK getting any credit for in effect giving Scotland “Devo-max”? The answer is obvious. When did the SNP, or independence supporters in general, give the UK any credit? They don’t want devolution to work.

None of us really know how these new powers will work. It’s all very well reading about them in government reports, but remember we only really discovered how devolution worked from 1997 onwards by living in a devolved Scotland. Let’s at least see how these new powers work out, before complaining too much. There is no point moaning about wicked Tories if you yourself have the power to raise taxes, but fail to do so. Better by far to take responsibility for your own actions instead of continually blaming the neighbours.

This tendency to complain is becoming really rather unattractive. Moreover it annoys the neighbours. I think this is the purpose of it. Scottish nationalists think that if they can annoy England enough, it brings them a step closer to their goal. It does. For this reason Pro UK people ought not to join in. We must think of the UK as a whole and do what we can for it to remain a reasonably harmonious whole.

How much power would Scottish MPs have in a UK parliament if England had its own parliament with the same amount of power as Holyrood? If this English parliament controlled, health, education, law and order etc., Scottish MPs would have no say whatsoever on these issues. This at present is the case with English MPs with regard to Scotland. They have no influence whatsoever on what goes on at Holyrood. Nor should they. Do they complain about this lack of influence? Do they think of themselves as second class MPs because they can’t control Scottish health and education policy?

Who amongst us thinks that Scotland has a right to its own parliament, but England doesn’t? But as it happens most English people don’t want their own parliament. They think it would be expensive and add another layer of politics that is unnecessary. But given that they don’t want their own parliament, does that mean England should have no devolution at all? Well they could have regional parliaments. But it’s clear that English people don’t much want these either. There are lots of ways of giving English people a little devolution, without setting up expensive parliaments and employing lots more politicians. You could have days at Westminster where only English matters were discussed and only English MPs voted. You could devolve to a local level in such a way as to bypass national parliaments. Alternatively you could have something like English Votes for English Laws (EVEL).

Again let’s see how it works out before complaining too much. EVEL amounts to a veto that English MPs will have on matters that only affect England. How often will it be used? Probably very rarely. Indeed EVEL gives English MPs hardly any additional power at all. They will have far less additional power because of EVEL than Scottish MSPs will have because of the new devolution powers coming to Scotland. EVEL will not allow English MPs to raise or lower taxes. It will not allow them to do initiate policy. It will only allow them once in a while to say No.

We must be generous to our neighbours otherwise they really will get sick of us. We have been given very extensive devolution. But we cannot expect to control both Scottish education and English education. That’s not fair. On issues that are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there must now be a majority of English MPs. A government that lacks a majority in England, cannot expect to push through, for example, a health policy that is opposed in England.

The main objection to EVEL is selfish. It comes from people on the Left who worry that a future Labour party government could not rule in England. The reality is that the Labour party cannot expect to form a government at all unless it wins in England. It very rarely happens that a party that wins in the UK doesn’t also win in England. This is a matter of numbers. A Labour party that lacks a majority in England will now, in theory, only control those matters that are not devolved to Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland. But in practice, they will probably control much more. England is so large that there will often be a case for saying that English matters affect everyone else too. In order to run macro-economic policy any government will have to control to some extent at least spending in England.

Devolution at present is unequal. It has been unequal from the beginning. This is simply untenable. English people have reacted to what they’ve heard during the independence referendum. They didn’t want any devolution years ago and they were willing to accept the will of the majority. But this was only tenable when everyone else played the same game. Now the SNP want to run both Scotland and England. It was this above all that won the Conservatives the election. EVEL may just be the one thing that gives Labour a chance again in England. Insofar as it removes the threat of the SNP ruling England it helps Labour. It may no longer be possible to run a poster campaign with Corbyn in Nicola’s pocket.

We need to make the UK fairer politically. Let’s see how things work out. EVEL is not a threat to the union. It may not be ideal, but it has the virtue of costing nothing and being easy to implement. It gives the English very little. It gives them far less than we have. But it’s symbolic. It gives them something. If you support the UK don’t keep complaining. “I want more, more and still more while you’re not getting anything”, is childish. We in Scotland who support the UK, must become better neighbours. We must try to see things from their point of view, not just our own. If we don’t, there will come a point when England demands independence whether we in Scotland wish it or not. Where would that leave us? Imagine if we lived in a country made up of only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We wouldn’t even have a common border. Best not to annoy the neighbours too much, they are the glue that holds us together.

The article was originally published on the author’s personal blog: http://effiedeans.blogspot.com/2015/11/evel-is-not-evil.html

About Effie Deans

Profile photo of Effie Deans
Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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