In a further development of the Conservative idea of English votes for English laws idea, Tory MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind is now toying with the notion of an English Grand Committee in the House of Commons. This would bring together the MPs representing English constituencies to deal with bills relating solely to England. The Speaker, or some other independent body, would be charged with deciding which parts of the legislative programme should be treated in this way.
This is a half-baked idea which would probably do more harm than good. First of all, the good. It would recognise that there is a democratic deficit when it comes to England. The programme of uneven devolution has left different parts of the United Kingdom with a different stake in the democratic process, and that is hardly fair. But an English Grand Committee will not make things right.
The Grand Committee is proposed instead of having specific elections for England. MPs in Westminster would be both “English” and “British”. Their counterparts from the other parts of the UK do not have a “national” role, there being elected assemblies or parliaments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (The fact that I have to write “assemblies or parliaments” and not simply “parliaments” is a further clue to why the Grand Committee is bad idea. I will come back to that.) Not only would the MPs have a dual role, the government would have a dual role. Ministers would govern both the UK and also England.
The proponents of the Grand Committee see this as a strength. Those ministers would control the legislative timetable and command the civil service. But it would also be a weakness. They would form the government as a result of a general election throughout the UK, so that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish votes could choose the government for England but not support its legislative programme. That would be absurd. A government with a UK majority but in a minority in England alone would be in office but not in power.
Secondly, the ministers who formed the government would have to come from English constituencies. That would rule out from high office in the UK politicians representing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Now such a concept might suit the Tories in England – they have 3 MPs from Wales and only 1 from Scotland – but it would suit neither the other parties nor the voters as a whole. It would be wrong to play with the constitution for party political advantage.
One could go further and say that the incongruity of insisting on an English-only leadership for the British government would reduce the other three parts of the United Kingdom to the status of colonies, dependent on English government but unable to contribute to it. The comparison is not perfect, I admit, but it would be close enough for the charge to stick. Already, the Scottish National party supports the idea, which ought to give any supporters of the continuation of the union pause for thought.
Yes, something needs to be done to give the English a stronger voice over their own politics, but not through setting up a Grand Committee. It is an idea that would weaken the union, not strengthen it. It is hard to believe that is what Sir Malcolm Rifkind really intends.