English votes for English laws is incompatible with unionism

Lord Lexden
Lord Lexden

‘With taxation impinging on virtually everything, it would be immensely difficult for Wilson to do anything.’

So wrote Robin Chichester-Clark, brother of the future Ulster Prime Minister, in his unpublished diary on February 9, 1967.

Picture of Conservative peer Lord Lexden

Picture of Conservative peer Lord Lexden

Chichester-Clark was then the Ulster Unionist MP for Londonderry at Westminster.

What Harold Wilson, as Labour head of the UK government, was thinking of doing in 1967 was to stop Ulster’s 12 Westminster MPs voting on health, education and other matters that in Ulster were the responsibility of Stormont.

This marked the first appearance in recent times of the issue which is now at the very heart of the increasingly acrimonious devolution debates in Parliament.

It is hard to overestimate the strength of feeling among many Conservatives that Scottish MPs should be barred completely from voting on legislation that does not extend to their part of the Union.

‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) is the insistent, much trumpeted slogan of these people.

Though Scotland is mainly in their minds, the same principle applies of course to Wales and Northern Ireland. ‘All we are asking for is simple fairness,’ its supporters say.

David Cameron’s rickety coalition government does not intend to do anything before the election.

Cameron himself called for ‘a decisive answer’ to the problem after the Scottish referendum.

He has not given it. Instead, a fortnight ago William Hague published a set of options to try and confine responsibility for English legislation to English MPs.

There are three alternatives from the Tories and more from the Liberal Democrats. ‘We cannot put off ensuring that our Parliament works in a way that is fair to all parts of the UK,’ the Tory section of the feeble government document proclaims.

That is totally misleading. We are no closer to resolving this profound constitutional issue which first reared its head in 1967.

Tory MPs like John Redwood who are thoroughly worked up about it are going to get angrier still when the proposals to give effect to the Smith Commission’s recommendations to hand tax-raising powers to the Scottish Parliament are published at the end of January.

EVEL is a gift to UKIP which has set its sights on seats in England at the coming election. It is placing huge pressure on an already strained Union.

Postponement will make matters even worse. It is a tragic mistake to allow the EVEL campaign to go on stoking up ill-feeling between England and the rest of our country.

Something really significant can be done through the Westminster Committee system to give English MPs greater influence over purely English legislation, but it is impossible to go further than that without having a new federal constitution for our country.

That crucial point should be made crystal clear to everyone now.

Chichester-Clark put his finger on the reason back in 1967: taxation. The revenue raised by taxation in each of the four parts of our country could not possibly be neatly linked to government spending in each.

Ulster’s MPs must not stand totally outside the principal decisions affecting taxes and spending in England.

Those decisions have a direct bearing on what is going to be available in the Province. Virtually all the laws that are passed have financial implications.

If Ulster’s Westminster MPs were excluded from them, they would become second-class MPs. That would be wholly unacceptable.

Like many unionists I had a difficult relationship with Enoch Powell, but no one has expressed the cardinal principles of unionism more powerfully than he did.

Speaking in 1975, he said: ‘No line of demarcation can be drawn in a unitary state between one set of subjects and another—for example, between social subjects and economic subjects, or between domestic subjects and external subjects.’

EVEL is incompatible with unionism.

Lord Lexden (formerly Alistair Cooke) is a Conservative Party peer and the official historian of the party