This week the Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill, at first sight a rather innocuous private member’s bill, got a second reading in the House of Commons:
The Bill applies to draft primary legislation and to secondary legislation published before the parent Act has gained Royal Assent. In these cases, it requires that the draft Bill should contain a statement setting out its legal effects on each nation of the United Kingdom, and that a memorandum accompany the draft showing its financial effects on each nation.
The Bill would also create new rights for citizens to see how proposed changes in the law would affect them, and for MPs to see how the changes would affect their constituents. The Bill requires that the provisions of draft legislation are compatible with these rights, referred to as “the principles of legislative territorial clarity”. The Secretary of State must make a statement to this effect, or a statement that he/she is unable to do so, but that the Government wishes to proceed nonetheless.
As I said, mild in the extreme. On first reading of the intentions behind the bill, my instinctive reaction was “So what?”
However, as this House of Commons Library research paper points out:
The Bill relates to the ‘West Lothian Question’, whereby Members representing constituencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may vote on legislation that applies only to England. If this were addressed by having a special way of voting on ‘England only’ legislation, then this Bill would provide a means of identifying some of those Bills
My second reaction, having read that part, was “OK, not quite so innocuous but still, this might just sort out the West Lothian Question without anybody actually noticing or the Union being any further weakened”.
Ian Paisley Jr would disagree with that interpretation and gave his alternative opinion in his customary understated and tactful manner:
The North Antrim MP said any imposition of “English votes for English laws” out of a fear the English are becoming “bad unionists” would create a two tier House of Commons and risk the break up of the United Kingdom.
“I appeal to my Conservative friends…they should recognise they should not play party politics with constitution of this nation,” he said.
“We will have a House of little Englanders,” he said. “That does not serve this nation.”
“You have a responsibility to lead the people of England into believing passionately in the union as I do.
“You only do that by not encouraging this view that we need another Parliament for the English only.”
Oh dear, where do you start with that?
The threat to the Union is not the “Little Englanders” or even English Conservative “bad unionists” but the whole concept of asymmetrical devolution which is wholeheartedly supported by the “good unionists” including Ian Jr, his party and almost all of the pro-Union Political Establishment in N.Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Unionists have been lucky so far that English nationalism, in the words of Arthur Aughey, remains more of a “mood than a movement“…. but we have no room for complacency because at its core asymmetrical devolution and its inevitable consequences is constitutionally (and in more practical terms) unfair to the English and ultimately damaging to the Union.
If you agree with the principle of separate parliaments or assemblies for N.Ireland, Scotland and Wales, then you really do need to deliver a much more coherent argument than Ian Jr has given here to say why the English shouldn’t have that exact same privilege.