The arguments for retaining the anomaly that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs routinely vote on legislation which does not affect them or their constituents seem to centre on the idea that banning the nations’ MPs voting on English-only legislation would downgrade these MPs to ‘second-class MPs’ and thus undermine our system of representative government within a unitary system, as well as giving the nationalists a gift - your MPs don’t matter as much, we must clearly have our own parliament with all-powerful MPs! It is also put forward that the party of government may lose its majority if Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh MPs are excluded and thus be unable to adequately govern, instead departments such as Health who only run English services having a Secretary of State unable to command the support of the Commons. These arguments are valid and must be confronted, but, in my opinion, they are not convincing enough to suggest we do not do anything to change how we govern England.
Firstly, the idea we have a purely unitary system some fifteen years after the devolution referendums of Tony Blair’s first term is frankly laughable. My AS Level textbook includes this explanation of a unitary system:
“A unitary state is a centralised and homogenous state; political power is concentrated in central government and all parts of the state are governed in the same way.”
Although power is ostensibly concentrated in the central government, Westminster retaining the right to abolish all three devolved assemblies, in practice we have a quasi-federal system, laws varying within different parts of the nation on education, health and even same-sex marriage to name but three; it therefore seems fair to posit that there is no real unitary system in the United Kingdom. Thus if there is no unitary system left then it would be hard to undermine it by barring MPs from voting on legislation that does not affect them.
Secondly, the claim that it would simply stoke up nationalism in the three nations if their MPs were barred from voting on legislation that does not have anything to do with them, well, the idea that Wales - for example - stays in the union because its MPs get to vote on the English NHS is frankly laughable and, if nationalism does flourish because of the redress of a basic fairness, then clearly the union is not strong enough to remain tenable.
The third argument that governments could lose their majorities is, it appears, based on little practical history, with England giving the party of government a majority too - Labour having an English majority of 44 in 2005 whilst overall Blair enjoyed a 66 seat majority following that election. It is true that excluding all non-English MPs has in recent history given a party a majority it did not have overall, the Conservatives having a comfortable majority in the 2010 election in England, but that does not seem to be an argument against the idea. If English MPs were those who voted solely on English legislation the Liberal Democrats would have been able to vote against the NHS reforms - as their party wanted - without the government being defeated, perhaps a thought that could get the Liberal Democrats to support the simplest answer to the West Lothian Question.
With the great symbol of democracy - the Palace of Westminster - located in the English capital, English MPs being the vast majority of MPs and my natural aversion to paying another lot of politicians’ salaries, I believe the creation of a separate English parliament is not the required remedy, simply having non-English MPs stop voting on English matters would be change enough to stop this basic unfairness; if the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs wish to vote on the NHS etc. and not just national security, military and other whole-UK matters then perhaps they should stand for their own national assemblies. I fully support the nations’ right to elect their own assembly, but - equally - I believe part of the trade-off must be that the MPs of devolved nations must give up right to vote on matters that do not affect them whether it be a formal bar on voting or simply an informal agreement that they will abstain.