Alex Massie (http://blogs.new.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/the-snps-attitude-to-english-votes-for-english-laws-is-as-hypocritical-as-it-is-tedious/) titles his most recent piece for the Speccy “The SNP’s attitude to English votes for English laws is as hypocritical as it is tedious” There are many aspects to this argument about EVEL, but one that I really don’t think has any traction whatsoever, is that those of Massie’s opinion find a critical attitude toward EVEL to be “tedious“. I dare say they would be very happy if we just gave up and went away, but Alex, that is not going to happen.
There is though a more important point here. Last time round the Unionists “owned” not just the debate – for instance while every nuance of independence was subjected to forensic investigation up to and including exaggeration and sometimes downright lies, the proposition that we stay in the Union was not subjected to the same attention – but also its vocabulary. Thus anyone supporting a Yes a vote was a “separatist” with the connotations that this brings. Massie’s contention, that the independence movement’s reaction to EVEL is “tedious“, reflects a similarly privileged claim.
Just over 50 years ago in “The Two Faces of Power.” (American Political Science Review, Volume 56, Issue 4 (Dec., 1962), 947-952.) Peter Bachrach
and Morton S. Baratz pointed out that power could be exercised by one party (A) over other parties (B) by preventing a decision from being taken. This is one current strategy of the Unionist side to manage the claim for Scottish independence. It has a number of forms, including arguments focusing on the “once in a generation” statement in the Edinburgh Agreement, as well as statements by Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon before the referendum vote that this was a “once in a lifetime opportunity“. The “settled will of the Scottish people” is another instance. Encouragement to govern Scotland, implying that taking forward independence is such a distraction that government suffers, is another. But so too is the somewhat patrician “oh dear, do you people have to keep banging on about independence. Can you not find something else to talk about?”. Massie’s use of “tedious” here is one example of that tactic.
It is therefore important to remember that in saying this Massie is making a strong claim to privilege in the ongoing independence debate, and it is important that he is challenged. Of course, we will be told that it’s just a joke, don’t we have sense of humour etc. But this is about more than incidental comments. Rather it is an attempt to manage the independence debate, by belittling it and ultimately closing it down, if possible.
But let’s get beyond Massie’s personal sensitivities. First of all, he is careful to ignore the fact that any supporter of independence (certainly that I know) has any in principle problem about England – or the rest of the UK – making its own decisions about its own affairs. Hence some of the quotes he attributes to Pete Wishart such as ““The voters of Perthshire could not care less about policing in Peckham or Plymouth”. However, if we accept that the limit of my freedom is when it impinges on that of others, the difficulty with EVEL as implemented, becomes clear for there are many decisions taken about England in Westminster which impinge on Scotland. For instance, spending decisions in England on matters devolved to Scotland have consequences for the resources available in Scotland. What can appear to be an English only matter, which should be determined by English MPs, can have important implications for Scotland.
If, in contrast, the UK was a federal state – particularly with federal parliaments which contributed TO the national Parliament rather than being funded BY the national Parliament – so that England had its own Parliament like Holyrood then many of these difficulties would disappear, for how much or how little was spent on policing in Plymouth would have no consequences for Perth. However, that is not what has been done to Standing Orders. There is no English Parliament, other than Westminster, which bears no resemblance to a federal model. Instead there are 650 MPs, some of whom can vote on everything, but – depending on decisions by the Speaker – some who can only vote on some matters, but are excluded from full consideration of others.
Massie uses the mooted new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick as a practical instance, protesting that this decision COULD be certified English only, but, on the other hand it might not. He considers English only certification improbable since, as he correctly points out ” airport capacity is a pan-UK issue“. But another runway at Heathrow or Gatwick is not about airport capacity, and certainly not a pan-UK issue, if you are a Tory MP in a marginal seat in the south east, with even any proximity to either airport. This is an issue that might determine whether or not you keep your seat in 2020. It is almost impossible to deny that local issues wont loom very large indeed if a decision to build another runway is taken. Is there not a motivation for Tory MPs to seek to take out Scots MPs? After all, they might vote in their own interests, and support building another runway so as to, for instance, limit the time spent “parked” above London waiting for a landing slot, especially if you are on an early morning flight.
However, Massie considers EVEL to be “a question of perception” and indeed in many respects it is. But, the reality underlying that is that there are now two classes of MPs – those from Scotland (and occasionally from Wales and NI) who can vote on some matters, and those MPs from English constituencies who can vote for them all. The difficulty for those who adopt Massie’s position is that it is this reality which the electorate will perceive. From an English perspective this was always the idea. It was why Cameron came rushing out his front door at eight o’clock in the morning on 19th September last year, to reassure the English electorate that their interests were not going to be rolled over by Scotland. But, at this point Massie would do well to contemplate Owen Thomson’s question, that if EVEL means only English MPs can vote on English matters, then why should it not be that Scottish MPs alone should be able to vote on the current Scotland Bill?
The fact is that even if EVEL is never ever used, that it has created two classes of MPs, and that Mr Massie is not a matter of perception. It is just a fact.