It is often said that one of the greatest characteristics of the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution is its ability to evolve and adapt to change. From the Prime Minister’s statement this morning, it appears that this 307year-old constitution has a lot of evolving to do in a very short space of time. Perhaps a strength, or perhaps a weakness, of the constitution has been its ability to carry on whilst fundamental questions like the ‘West Lothian question’ have remained un-answered. Those will now have to be answered and the period for doing so is said to be months not years. That appears a tall order for a constitution that declared the intention to replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber over a century ago. The inescapable questions that arise from the Scottish vote are many and touch all corners of the Union and almost all corners of the constitution. Many blogs and other articles will be penned in the days, weeks and months ahead as the issues are discussed, debated and then (if the timetable holds) decided. So here is a starter for ten (or rather, ten for a starter):
- “English votes on English laws” appears to be the presumptive answer to the West Lothian question. That must be unobjectionable in principle but the practice appears more challenging. You need only pause for a moment to recognise a number of difficulties: first, in a system of asymmetric devolution excluding the Scottish MPs cannot be the answer. “English votes on English laws” must also call for the exclusion of Welsh MPs and Northern Irish MPs when the matter under debate relates to matters that have been devolved to those respective countries. Thus the House of Commons has various different compositions with different consequences for the majority of the government of the day. Secondly, the exclusion of non-English MPs works fine if the Bill before the House of Commons is exclusively English. What about Bills which predominantly relate to the law of England but the odd clause has a Scottish (or Welsh, or Irish) element to it? A third consequence flows from the a-symmetric nature of the current devolution arrangements: what is an “English only” issue is not clear. Some form of harmonisation of the devolved powers would surely be necessary for this to be a workable long-term solution.
- The most obvious difficulty with “English votes on English laws” arises when the government relies upon non-English MPs to make up its majority. At one level, this ought not to prevent the exclusion of non-English MPs: if the majority of English constituencies returned an MP from a given party, that party has a democratic claim to govern England. But it presents significant practical difficulties: it would be unworkable in the context of the current House of Commons to have a one government for “English” matters and another government for “UK” matters.
- When Dr (now Lord) Reid was appointed Health Secretary questions were asked about the appropriateness of that appointment, representing as he did a Scottish constituency, given health had been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Is it now untenable to have a Scottish MP (or, with their respective spheres of devolution a Welsh or Northern Irish) appointed to a portfolio that has been devolved? Again, that would appear unobjectionable in principle. Perhaps a convention has emerged (or will soon emerge) to that effect?
- But what of the office of Prime Minister: could a Scottish MP now hold that office? That must be open to doubt if “English votes on English laws” were to become a reality. But it would surely be equally unacceptable to the other nations of the United Kingdom if the consequence of “English votes on English laws” resulted in a convention (at least) that the Prime Minister represent an English constituency.
- And what of the legislation that Parliament will pass when only composed of English MPs? Is it the act of a sovereign legislature, beyond the challenge of the courts? That is not the case for any other devolved legislature. But if legal limits are to be imposed on this reformed parliament they will have to be clear and imposed by legislation and not changes to parliamentary procedure. What of human rights? Not a popular subject if the popular press are to be believed. But each of the current devolved legislatures have their competence delimited by reference to the ECHR. Will this new form of House of Commons be subject to similar limitation? It would be a curious result if the English legislature was vested with the power to abridge the fundamental rights of those living in England in a way that other devolved legislatures were barred from.
- Does all this not lead necessarily to an English Parliament? If so, does that not also require a separate English government? Federalism? Entrenchment of the broader devolution settlement so that it is formally put beyond the reach of the Westminster Parliament? Given the overwhelming size of England how will be balance of power between the First Minister of England and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom be struck? Is that a matter to be resolved by convention or by law?
- Next, a point that I must credit to a non-lawyer friend of mine (an engineer in fact). Looking at the ‘referendum map’ of Scotland it is largely red. As I type this over my morning coffee it is 27-4 to ‘no’ on a count of the local authorities. That appears a pretty decisive victory for the ‘no’ campaign. Of course, look at the actual votes cast and we see that, across the country, the result is, with a bit of rounding, 55-45: a much closer contest. That reminds us of the distorted results that a first-past-the-post system can produce. If this were a two-horse election race, ‘no’ has won a landslide. But the ‘yes’ vote, with a turnout in excess of 85%, has had more votes cast in its favour than any government that Scotland has ever elected! Is the voting system to be part of the constitutional discussion that is about to take place? If not, why not?
- If the electoral system is put on the agenda that should go hand-in-hand with finally completing reform of the House of Lords. Whether elected, appointed or a mixture of the two, if we can solve the ‘West Lothian question’ in a matter of months then the ‘House of Lords question’ must also be capable of resolution. Indeed, any truly comprehensive package of constitutional reform could not ignore it.
- And if we are to have a comprehensive package of constitutional reform, in fact, even the reforms mentioned by the Prime Minister this morning, will it be back to the polls? The timetable envisages these reforms being concluded before the next UK general election. The three main parties may well be agreed on the need for the reform. But none of them have a mandate from the UK electorate for such wide-reaching reform. Should the package of reforms not be put to the people for approval? If that is to be done before the 2015 election, a referendum is the only vehicle for that. Given the relatively trival matters that must now be submitted to a referendum under the European Union Act 2011, it seems hard to accept substantial and fundamental constitutional reform for the whole United Kingdom without asking the 96% of the population that did not vote in Scotland’s referendum whether they want that.
- If the process that has been started touches on so many areas of the constitution, is it responsible to do this in a matter of months. Is this not the catalyst for a root and branch review of the constitution? Everything should be on the table, not just the devolution settlement: electoral system, human rights, House of Lords and sovereignty (which necessitates resolving our stance on the EU). That will take years but if the current system is ‘broken’ (to use the Prime Minister’s word) then it needs a proper repair and not yet another running repair.
Finally, I cannot resist a comment on the result. Hopefully the analogy I am about to draw will not belittle too much the constitutional significance of what has happened in the last 24 hours. But it seems to me apt. It is often said that supporting the Scottish football team prepares you for anything. I now think that is literally true. The feeling I have this morning, having found myself in the minority of my countrymen, is reminiscent of the feeling I am all too often left with as I walk away from Hampden having just watched Scotland play one of the top footballing nations: weeks before the match victory is accepted to be impossible; but as the day nears a belief begins to build that we might pull off an unexpected result; but once the match has finished you walk away thinking ‘we almost got there’, ‘so proud of how we played today’, ‘that was always likely to be the result’, ‘at least we gave them a run for their money’ and, the consolation thought, ‘after a performance like that I am sure we will do it next time’. Today feels the same, but without the consolation of next time to look forward to. But, equally, the reaction of “no” voters I have spoken to reminds me of another common emotion of the Scottish football fan, this time having just played a so-called ‘lesser’ football nation: relief, ‘that was a bit close for comfort’, ‘we made that hard for ourselves’ and ‘we better improve going forward’.
Let’s hope that final emotion endures. If the legacy of the referendum is that meaningful constitutional reform finally comes to the United Kingdom, then something really positive will have come from the vote. Whether that can be done in the timescale promised is another matter. Indeed, there is a good argument to take our time and do this properly. But to finish the football analogy, all too often you arrive at Hampden for the next match after that ‘too close for comfort’ result to see the same players, in the same formation with the same tactics. Memories can be short. Hopefully the unreformed House of Lords can stand as a reminder of how momentum can be lost and the commitments made today are seen through to their conclusion.
Paul Reid is an Advocate with Ampersand Stable and a part-time tutor of Public Law at the University of Edinburgh
Suggested citation: P. Reid, ‘Where now after ‘no’? A starter for 10.’ , UK Const. L. Blog (19th September 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).