(In this post, for the sake of simplicity, I am going to ignore Wales and Northern Ireland, and pretend that the UK consists of just Scotland and England.)
I am not disappointed by the Smith Commission’s report, simply because I never expected anything significantly better. The already limited additional powers it proposes will probably be cut back as the legislation makes its way through Westminster, as happened with the Calman Commission’s proposals; more generous proposals would just have been cut back even more. Indeed, there is no guarantee yet that the necessary legislation will be passed at all. If the next UK government were to be a Tory/UKIP coalition, UKIP might well manage to block it, probably with significant support from both Tory and Labour back-bench MPs.
In the meantime, as some kind of quid pro quo for the ‘extensive’ new powers the Scottish Parliament is supposed to be getting, Cameron has his sights set on gaining some advantage over Labour with English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), with the claim that this is necessary to end the possibility of Scottish MPs voting on legislation which applies only to England. No doubt he will wish to push this through Parliament before the next election, if he possibly can, as a hedge against the Tories losing.
Ironically, the justification for EVEL may mostly disappear after the election, if some recent opinion polls are a good guide to how the Scottish electorate will vote next May, since the SNP have a policy of not voting on matters which do not affect Scotland. It is Labour who have been guilty of imposing legislation on England with the help of their Scottish MPs.
I have read pro-independence blogs which accept the need for EVEL to end the unfairness encapsulated in the infamous West Lothian Question, but I am not convinced that EVEL is the right solution to the problem. This could turn out to be a case where the cure is worse than the disease, from a Scottish point of view. Much will depend on the eventual details of EVEL.
One version of EVEL that was proposed some time ago was that English bills should receive a fourth reading after which only English MPs would be allowed to vote. This would only be a partial solution, as presumably Scottish MPs might be able to kill a bill at an earlier stage by voting against it, if only a small majority of English MPs were in favour of it. Also, this would require additional Parliamentary time.
A more realistic version would be that Scottish MPs would be barred from voting at any stage on English bills. This might seem reasonably innocuous, but the danger is that, given the asymmetric nature of the UK, purely English legislation will often have significant, albeit indirect, consequences for Scotland. Also, a bill might deal with matters which are partially devolved to the Scottish Parliament, particularly finance (although this could perhaps be avoided by splitting it into two separate bills, one for the UK and one for England). Could this result in Scottish MPs being barred from voting on legislation which mostly affects England but contains some provisions which apply to Scotland?
If EVEL is implemented, it is only going to make much difference, from an English point of view, when there is a Labour government, or a coalition led by Labour, which does not have a majority of English seats. A situation where the opposition has a majority for a significant part of the business of the Commons should be interesting, to say the least.
It could easily be argued that if Scottish MPs are not allowed to vote on an English bill, then they should not be permitted to participate in debates on that bill. If that were to be the case, then Scottish MPs would truly be reduced to a second class status at Westminster. How could MPs be appointed as government ministers if they are not allowed to participate in some debates relevant to their ministerial responsibilities? Of course, this is not a problem for departments such as defence which deal with matters reserved to Westminster, or with others which deal with matters such as health which are mostly devolved. In the first case there could be no objection to a Scottish MP being appointed, while in the second a Scottish MP would presumably not be appropriate even without EVEL. The problem is with, for example, finance which is partly devolved. In this more extreme version of EVEL, some cabinet positions, such as that of Chancellor of the Exchequer, might only be open to English MPs. The crucial point is that it could make it impossible for a Scottish MP ever to be Prime Minister, or even leader of any party which might win a general election.
If Scottish MPs were reduced to a second class status at Westminster, formally prohibited from participating in some of the business of the House of Commons and effectively blocked from holding certain offices in the Government (including that of Prime Minister), would that be acceptable to the people of Scotland? Would it even be compatible with the Treaty of Union?
I would argue that no version of EVEL will do anything to rectify a fundamental problem with the Westminster Parliament, which is that some of the time it is acting as the UK Parliament and at other times it is, in effect, the English Parliament; there may even be times when the two roles are not clearly separated. There is only one solution to that problem, short of Scottish independence, and that is some kind of federal system which includes a new English Parliament. The UK Parliament would then have a reduced workload; its MPs could be reduced in number and the anachronistic, undemocratic House of Lords abolished to free up accommodation for the English Parliament.
Two final thoughts. Firstly, if some form of EVEL is implemented, it would make sense for it to apply to the House of Lords as well. Why should Scottish peers be allowed to vote on English laws, if Scottish MPs are not? Of course, it is easy to define a Scottish MP as someone elected in a Scottish constituency, regardless of where they were born, but it would be trickier to define a Scottish peer, and so I guess that EVEL will be confined to the Commons.
Secondly, since the Westminster Parliament acts as the English Parliament for some of the time, and the Scottish Parliament is paid for out of the Scottish budget, Scotland should not also have to pay a full per capita share of the running costs of the Houses of Parliament – a particularly relevant point when there is talk of £3 billion refurbishment being needed.