Before 1997 the greatest danger to the United Kingdom, as it is currently constituted, was posed by Irish nationalism. More than ten years later, after Labour’s ill-considered devolution experiments, the inconsistencies and asymmetries inflicted by Tony Blair and his government form a considerably profounder challenge to unionists. In concert with the insidious creep of electoral nationalism in Scotland and Wales, these structural problems offer a far more pressing threat than anything which is currently happening in Northern Ireland.
The Ulster Unionist party has signalled its determination to be actively involved in a pan-UK debate concerning the Union’s future, in order to address the most pertinent challenges which unionism now faces, by investigating a new arrangement with the Conservatives. The idea is to carve out a far more central role at the heart of the UK’s politics. As O’Neill highlighted last week, even the DUP’s leader, Peter Robinson, with his party’s politics still firmly attached to the parish pump, has alluded to structural conundrums which devolution has posed.
Robinson was speaking specifically on the subject of ‘English votes for English laws’ which Ken Clarke’s democracy taskforce has suggested should form the basis of Tory policy toward the so called West Lothian Question. The DUP leader suggests that such a solution would ‘weaken the Union’. O’Neill points out in his piece that the Union was weakened at the point when the Labour government created ‘inequities arising from the asymmetrical devolved system’.
Robinson allows at least that the question is ‘very complex’. His party have rarely been so understated where it perceives Westminster‘s ‘meddling’ in Northern Ireland’s affairs. Indeed the Democratic Unionists have shown little commitment to, or understanding of, the notion of the national parliament’s ultimate sovereignty as regards the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.
Robinson’s predecessor as party leader was wont to describe direct rule ministers as ‘squatters’. The First Minister’s wife has made accusations against ‘the Brits’. Most recently the DUP have strongly opposed any attempt to legislate on abortion for Northern Ireland from Westminster. The matter should not be reserved they argue, even though it falls under the remit of policing and justice, an issue which they formerly claimed would not be devolved for ‘a political lifetime’. On a vitally important national debate regarding 42 day detention, the DUP used their votes to extract maximum political advantage from the national government, claiming it would do the ‘right thing’ for Northern Ireland.
Of course there is an argument against enacting English votes for English legislation, which has its basis in UK constitutional law. Westminster has not transferred any degree of sovereignty to the three legislative institutions in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. Westminster retains the constitutional right (Sewel Convention not withstanding) to override, veto or ignore legislation enacted by devolved administrations. In theory Westminster still enjoys ultimate competence for all legislation which is passed in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. To bar non English MPs from English votes would therefore create a hierarchy of power in Westminster in which MPs from English constituencies would enjoy greater privileges. In addition, members of the government elected in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would be unable to vote on English issues.
Of course, given the derision which the DUP heaps upon Westminster whenever it inconveniently reserves matters on which Robinson’s party does not see eye to eye with the government and given the virulent terms in which the DUP expounds its ‘ourselves alone’ politics, the party’s objection to English votes for English laws is unlikely to reside in an overwrought respect for the sovereignty of the national parliament.
The constitutional quandary which Labour has bestowed upon the United Kingdom requires sustained attention. Realistically, whether it is a good thing or not, devolution is here to stay. Scotland in particular has warmed to its parliament and to wrest it away would be counterproductive. It is also unlikely that in the foreseeable future it will be possible to remove competence in any significant fashion or restructure devolution to the institutions’ detriment.
The other purported ‘solution’ which cannot be countenanced is an English parliament. Such a body would irreparably unbalance the Union and deal a severe blow to any remaining vestige of unity within the Kingdom. Four separate national interest bodies would then exist and England would dwarf its three neighbours. The centrifugal forces exerted upon the Union would be unsustainable. I am reminded of the Soviet Union’s dying embers, which were doused, not so much by emerging regional separatism, but by a sense of grievance and a demand for institutional recognition fostered by Boris Yeltsin‘s courtship of Russian nationalism.
The challenge for the Conservatives and other parties prepared to address this thorny issue is to extinguish any sense of grievance which may be developing in England without diminishing Westminster’s sovereign authority or inflicting further damage on the psychological ties of Union. It is an awesome task which will require innovative, creative thinking. It is a task that is well beyond the parochial mindsets of the DUP.