The proposed format for the leaders’ debates on TV ahead of next May’s general election, announced yesterday, reveals the fundamental character of Parliament and UK government as a reimagining-as-British of an essentially English polity. Three debates are mooted: one involving only the two ‘prime ministers in waiting’ (David Cameron and Ed Miliband – so much for the voters being in charge!); one including Nick Clegg in addition the two above ‘presidential’ candidates (ostensibly, to allow the Lib Dem leader to defend his party’s record in government); and one adding UKIP’s Nigel Farage to the mix, because UKIP is putting up a candidate in every constituency in England, Scotland and Wales (and because, let’s face it, its poll ratings and electoral performance can no longer be ignored).
It is staggering how easily and casually the SNP in particular, and also Plaid Cymru, have been excluded from the debates, even though the SNP is now the UK’s third-largest party in terms of members and is likely to be the largest party in Scotland after the 2015 election, as current polling stands. This means that the SNP could well hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and be invited into a UK coalition. Despite this, and despite the fact that the SNP already has six MPs, David Cameron indicated he thought the Green Party should also be included in at least one of the debates, on the basis that it currently has a single MP. If the Greens, why not the SNP, or Plaid, or indeed the Northern Irish parties?
The answer, clearly, is that only parties with MPs elected in England are thought to matter. This is ultimately because the UK polity itself is effectively at core an English polity (though never openly avowed as such). This means that parties’ electoral ‘pitch’ is mainly to English voters on English laws and policies.
The practical reality of Westminster politics is actually the opposite of the way it’s normally construed: it’s not so much that only some laws are English-only (and hence, the argument goes, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should be excluded from debating and voting on them) while some are UK-wide; but in reality, all policies are English, and only some also extend to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In this context, the real function of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, particularly in the post-devolution era, is merely to add their numbers to the parliamentary arithmetic that determines the composition of UK governments and the passing of English laws. It is assumed, therefore, that the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru needn’t be invited to participate in any of the TV debates because they will not be determining the content of UK (i.e. English) laws after the election – even though the votes of their MPs may be essential in passing those laws, and the participation of their MPs in government may be required as part of a ruling coalition.
But if SNP and, potentially, Plaid and some Northern Irish MPs are needed to form a coalition, don’t English voters have the right to hear what their leaders have to say about the policy concessions they would demand on entering a coalition, and what stance they would take on voting on such a coalition’s England-only or England-mainly laws?
But the ‘English’ parties don’t want English voters to realise that they are dependent on non-English-elected MPs and, by extension, non-English voters for the passing of essentially English laws – by which I mean not only laws whose extent is in fact strictly limited to England (which are in reality very few in number), but all UK laws and government policies: on the basis of my contention above that all UK laws are fundamentally and primarily English laws in the first instance.
On this basis, the moniker of ‘English votes for English laws’, used to justify the potential exclusion of non-English-elected MPs from debates and votes on England-only legislation, is a convenient fiction to cover up the fact that all laws are England-mainly: designed for England by English parties (but which style themselves as ‘British’) and only as it were incidentally extending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (or one or two of those additional parts of the UK, depending on the geographical extent of any actual bill).
So the UK-wide (i.e. ‘English’) parties don’t want the Scotland- and Wales-only party leaders to participate in the ostensibly UK-wide (i.e. English) TV debates because they don’t want English voters to realise that those Scottish and Welsh parties, as well as Scottish- and Welsh-elected MPs in ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, may ultimately call the shots in terms of both ‘UK-wide’ (i.e. England-mainly) and England-only laws.
But the English parties nonetheless want the votes of those parties in Parliament and, potentially, the participation of those parties’ MPs in coalition government. Hence, they need the votes of the Scottish and Welsh electorate, including on genuinely England-only matters: all three ‘UK’ debates will air in Scotland and Wales, even though all laws in devolved policy areas will not affect Scottish and Welsh voters. If those Scottish and Welsh votes can be channelled into ‘UK’ (i.e. English) parties, all the better. Hence, the exclusion of the leaders of the SNP and Plaid fulfils a convenient double purpose: optimise the non-nationalist vote in Scotland and Wales (i.e. the vote for ‘English’ parties in those countries), while preventing English voters from being aware that Scottish and Welsh MPs will play a decisive role in shaping their next government and their laws.
So we’re left in a ludicrous situation of England-only parties in the debates canvassing the votes of all British voters for the passing of English laws in the UK parliament! If the SNP and Plaid are sidelined out of the equation, then you don’t have to consider the awkward potential situation whereby either a Conservative- or Labour-led coalition might actually require the votes of Scottish- or Welsh-nationalist politicians to pass English (i.e. all) their laws.
In which case, we might find that calls for English votes on English laws are quietly dropped. But in the meantime, we mustn’t have the inner workings of a parliamentary system exposed to the view of English and non-English voters alike in which the votes of non-English MPs – and ultimately, of non-English voters – are reduced to the role of providing parliamentary voting fodder in support of fundamentally ‘English’ policy agendas.
But the essentially English status of those policies and of Parliament itself must never be openly acknowledged. If it was, then there would be no alternative other than to move to a more honest separation of English and UK-wide policies and politics: a genuinely English parliament to debate English laws, and a genuine UK parliament to reflect different views and priorities from across the UK, and not just a ‘Britain’ that is fundamentally England re-imagined and re-named.