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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Will English votes for English laws quicken the break-up of the UK?

If the easy popularism of UKIP disturbs you then pause to think how much damage David Cameron's obsession with his own popularist ideas can do now that he is a position to implement them. By far the most dangerous of these ideas is English votes for English laws.

In principle I have no issue with any part of the UK determining its own fate when it comes to issues that are most appropriately decided at a national or regional level. However, the best way to do that is through a democratically elected National or Regional Parliament, or by devolving responsibility to an elected local council.

The solution being advocated by the Prime Minister is a simplistic short cut, that fails to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of how power is currently exercised in the UK and whilst it may prove a constant irritant to Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a real danger that it may drive Scotland out of the Union altogether.

Today's Western Mail illustrates some of that with quotes from Labour MPs illustrating the complexities of the devolution settlement, even a reformed one in which Wales has a full-law making Parliament.

Putting aside the asymmetric nature of devolution across the UK, which means that different nations have powers and responsibilities not reflected elsewhere, the border issues and the impact of the Barnett formula means that virtually no policy actually is English-only.

Anglesey MP, Albert Owen illustrates this when he points out that people in North Wales depend on English hospitals for specialist services. People in Mid-Wales depend on English hospitals for standard secondary health services. Mr. Owen argues that he should not be stopped from taking part in the scrutiny of legislation during the committee stage of a Bill if it affects his constituents. He is right, certainly whilst he remains a member of the body charged with responsibility for that legislation.

But there are less obvious examples of policies that cannot be confined to just the one country due to the economic and financial impact of changing them on other administrations. Tuition Fees is a good example. Half of Welsh students attend English Universities. Welsh Universities are in competition with their English counterparts for students.

That is why former North Wales Conservative AM Antoinette Sandbach, is wrong when she argues that identifying England-only legislation should not prove difficult. She believes that MPs just have to look at the Wales Act and check which powers are devolved, arguing that this is what already takes place in the Assembly.

This is such a misrepresentation of the Welsh Assembly's legislative process that I am astonished that Antoinette believes it is the case. Her misunderstanding of what happens here and of our devolution settlement is so wrong that I wonder what it was she did when she was here. Another former Tory AM-turned-MP gone native, and so soon as well.

But the most dangerous part of Cameron's EVEL plan is the creation of two classes of MPs, in which those from the Celtic fringes are curtailed in properly representing the interests of their constituents. That could prove to be the final straw for the Scottish.

If Cameron really wants to pursue this agenda then he needs to look at finishing the devolution project, put in place a Federal UK and let the English have their say through properly elected and representative Parliaments.

It is a deep irony that a so-called unionist Prime Minister has turned out to be nothing more than a second-rate English nationalist and that in pursuing that agenda could well break-up the very union he supposedly cherishes.
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