Yesterday I blogged about English Laws for English Foxes. Today I read a New Statesman piece by Michael Kenny that makes a quite contrasting argument. If he is right, my thoughts are not in tune with what the English majority think. It would not be the first time! Still, it is worth asking what view is reasonable to take.
My own view, in brief, is this. The moral conditions under which Scotland and three other polities remain United as a Kingdom are not a matter that can be reserved to any one of them but must command assent of all. Where distinct arrangements are made to deal with a particular policy area, each polity should not interfere with another. On this basis there is a case for English Votes for English Laws (EVEL).
The point remains that the general conditions under which agreements on how laws should be made – that is to say, the constitutional settlement – can never be a reserved matter for any one nation. Thus if English MPs were to decide to try and opt out of the UK’s Human Rights Act, for instance, the Scots would be justified in saying that England would have to become a fully independent nation first. Scotland voted to remain part of the UK as a nation that has a Human Rights Act. It could be said we voted to stay on the understanding that a range of moral conditions would continue to apply – particularly when they involve no party political or national partiality. A law against fox hunting could be captured under this heading – particularly if it is accepted that a measure of a democracy is how it treats the rights those who cannot speak for themselves.
That is why Sturgeon had the political opportunity she seized. Kenny observes that this risks painting the SNP ‘as a party that puts tactical expediency above principle’. Risks? This is the party brought to its current fortunes in large measure by Alec Salmond! But seriously, how damaging can it be for Tories to criticise an opponent for scoring against them in their own game? On Kenny’s estimate, this will be a victory for the Right, in their quest for more English autonomy; but he doesn’t explain why he thinks greater separation between England and Scotland would not make the SNP a winner.
Kenny’s real concern is for the Labour Party. There are certainly myriad reasons to be concerned, but I wonder if this is really one. His worry is that Labour, in supporting the SNP stance, reveals ‘a telling insensitivity to the question of how English voters might feel about this issue.’ The issue referred to is not foxhunting, which Kenny finds the English majority anyway does not favour. The issue is the party’s ‘profound indifference to the democratic, as well as national, questions associated with English devolution.’
My argument has been that if we want to look at profound questions, then we could look at the moral basis of our constitutional settlement, and perhaps also at the justification for arrangements that produce such disproportionately elected representatives. We could also take seriously the thought that no two nations are completely impervious to each other, even in their internal legal arrangements, and the nations of England and Scotland most certainly are not. It is thoughts like these, I believe, that give an underlying moral resilience to Sturgeon’s stance on this matter, as on others.
As the landslide victory for SNP north of the border seems to tell us, Labour’s problem is not that it is insufficiently deferential to the sort of niceties that Tories can conveniently invoke when it suits them. The General Election result in Scotland was forged in the resilience of spirit that arose from the referendum experience. Politics for a moment was put in touch with its real constitutional basis, the people and their aspirations. Perhaps Kenny inadvertently puts his finger on the problem when he says that the English people’s view on foxhunting is not what matters. What does their view on matter? Kenny suggests it is issues of English devolution.
Maybe I am really out of touch, but I can’t help feeling people are rather less concerned about the form of political arrangements than the basic values we want to be instilled in public life. George Osborne knows what he wants. So does Nicola Sturgeon. And Caroline Lucas. It takes some optimism of the will to think Labour is going to get a grip on any sort of vision, as it now even seems to be wobbling about membership of the European Union, meanwhile nodding through Tory policies as if it were a coalition partner. In short, there could be a growing number of English people who look to the Westminster Scots to provide some genuine opposition. Such a makeshift solution would not go entirely against the grain of our tradition of unwritten constitutionalism!
My more serious point is that if Labour is to recapture English hearts and minds it might do well to try and discern their deeper resonances with those of the Scots it has lost, rather than be distracted by the shrill racket of nationalism, Scottish or English.