Take Back Control

‘If I was starting again and founding the SNP today, maybe I would call it something else but I’m not and it has been in existence now for 90 years and the problem here is not the name of the SNP, it is the absurd and irresponsible and unfounded comments by Sadiq Khan that are the problem here.’ Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister and leader of Scottish National Party, Interview with Holyrood magazine, 13 March 2017.

The nationalism that dare not speak its name

Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, recently expressed her frustration that her party’s name allowed it to be presented in a negative light.  She was not the first leader of her party to consider that the party’s name was unhelpful but felt that the problem was not so much the name but how her opponents chose to interpret it.  Labour is at least as nationalist as the SNP and the Conservatives far more so but both fail to appreciate or acknowledge their nationalism themselves.

A key to different understandings of nations, national identity and forms of nationalism rests on the thin nature of nationalist ideology and central to this is an understanding of the Other.  Leadership plays an important part in the definition of the Other.  Since becoming a Parliamentary party fifty years ago, the SNP has emphasized its multi-culturalism and sought to embrace the Other.  Having National in its name has made the SNP highly sensitive to the criticism and keeps them on a straight and narrow while other parties’ ideologies include a nationalism that dare not speak its name but has led to a framing of the Other in negative terms and allowed for the development of an absolutist, illimitable notion of statehood and citizenship.

Nationalism and nationalisms

The literature on nationalism is vast though it was rather neglected as a subject within the social sciences, especially as applied to advanced liberal democracies, until relatively recently.  With a few notable exceptions, nationalism was seen as a subject of relevance in new states, hence the emphasis on the study of nation-building in former colonies post-1945.  There was little appreciation that processes of nation-building were continuous, if not always acknowledged in all states.  It seems to be easier to see nationalism in opponents than in one’s own country or political party.

Little attention was paid to what Kellas (1991: 52) referred to as ‘official nationalism’ and others have referred to as ‘state nationalism’ as distinct from ‘regional nationalism, or some other variant, nationalism (see Keating 1988).  Indeed, it was (and remains) common to deny the existence of such a nationalism in the UK.  If we take official nationalism as an essential ingredient for the coherence of any state, as understood in work on nation building, then we can assume that denying its existence may be a sign of its strength and not its absence.  A coherent state requires a sense of belonging and loyalty.  Its leaders will often parade with military hardware, refer to hearts ‘pitter pattering’ when they see the national flag, prioritise fellow nationals over others, and make frequent references to pride in the nation/state and associated institutions.  Illustrative of this is the emerging bibliography of nationalism in the UK.  Numerous books and articles were written on sub-state nationalism with little reference to state nationalism when Scottish and Welsh nationalism were emerging as challenges to the UK’s integrity.  The more recent emergence of a literature on English and British nationalism, noting that British is not entirely accurate as it does not cover the whole of the UK, is not a sign of health.  The nation that need not speak its name exhibits a strong nationalism.

The Other

A key to understanding national identity, and therefore the ideology associated with it, is the Other (see Triandafyllidou 2001 ch.2 for review of literature on ‘National Identity and the Other’).  The mutability, subjective and contextual nature of the Other is evident over time.  The Other can focus on places, people or politics.  Anthony Smith’s observed that nationalism has a ‘chameleon-like ability to transmute itself according to the perceptions and needs of different communities’ (Smith 1995: 3) is in large measure a reflection of the mutable Other.  The potency of the Other may arise from a mixture of the three and the Other can, of course, include the ‘Other within’.  The assumption tends to be that the Other are people:

I am English means I am not French/German/European/…

But this is not an equation nor does it mean that the distinction is with a people.  It does not follow that:

I am French/German/European/… = I am English

In the 1980s what was meant with being Scottish came to have a political content for many people living in Scotland:

I am Scottish = I am not a Tory/Thatcherite.

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 17.59.39

The Others within have been presented as a particular threat in some nationalist rhetoric.  The Brexit referendum focused to a very large extent on immigration.  But immigration has been framed differently by Scottish nationalists and in Scottish policy debates over many decades, indeed throughout most of the twentieth century.  In part, this may reflect the perceived different demographic challenges.  There has long been concern that Scotland was losing population and, more recently as population levels have stabilised and grown, immigration has been continued to be framed in positive terms.  The SNP has long embraced the Other.

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 18.01.38

Rhetoric of nationalism: sovereignty and take back control

Nationalism has a common language.  Sovereignty may have limited popular resonance and is more commonly used by the more politically engaged.  The more popular version is ‘take back control’ or ‘Nation First’ (and often enough implicitly ‘Nation First, Last and Always’).

All ideologies have fundamentalist tendencies and this fundamentalism if often linked to the party’s rhetoric.  Rooted in theological discourse, sovereignty’s indivisibility translated to the political world via the Crown as the Supreme earthly power.  Efforts to address this indivisibility and illimitability over centuries without abandoning the idea resulted in various reactions from Madisonian ‘aggregate’ or ‘co-equal’ sovereignty, popular sovereignty.  In the UK, sovereignty was transferred to Parliament in the idea of the Crown in Parliament or Parliamentary sovereignty, a classic case of Morgan’s observation, ‘Government requires make-believe.  Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God.  Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people.  Make believe that governors are the servants of the people’ (Morgan 1989: 13).  But make-believe of this sort may come to be believed.

Identity and citizenship as the mirrors of sovereignty

Absolutist notions of sovereignty are mirrored in some cases in the politics of identity and citizenship.  Much is made of identity politics with reference to Brexit, but it is not so much identity per se as the nature of identity politics that requires consideration.  Identities are hollow and the issue is the meaning(s) with which they are filled and relationships between different identities, whether competing or complementary.  The politics of identity in the two referendums held in the UK (Scottish independence in 2014 and EU membership in 2016) illustrate this.  A survey of members of the two parties that advocated Scottish independence found that identity politics did not conform with what might have been expected.  Not only did a proportion acknowledge a British identity but significant numbers identified a European identity.

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 18.04.26

Note that the survey was conducted at a time when Brexit was growing in importance following the 2015 general election.  We can only speculate but suggest that as identities are contingent and contextual that this manifestation of European identity amongst SNP and Green members owes much to the imminence of the Brexit referendum.  But leaving aside the high levels of Europeanness, the SNP and especially Greens exhibit a sense of Britishness that might not be expected from nationalists.

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 18.07.21

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 18.07.30

The relationship between identity and citizenship is far from clear cut.  An identity is subjective while citizenship is fairly clearly defined legally (though can come with surprises).  Nation-building is largely about creating a sense of common identity, hence Connor’s argument that nation-building involved nation destroying.  Over 40 years ago, Aron and Hofstadter argued that the ‘idea of multi-national citizenship is a contradiction in terms’  but the European Union confounded the conflation of identity and citizenship and the notion that a single identity was essential to creating a new polity.  However, this conflation ias abhorrent to purist nationalists.

Congruence of national and political units

This leads to questions of constitutional politics.  For the purist nationalist, a simple equation operates.  National identity and citizenship are singular, sovereignty is absolute and the state shares power with no other entity.  There can be no sharing of sovereignty as sovereignty is absolute.  Citizens can only belong to one state or polity.  Purist nationalism would reject any competition.  There was evidence in the past of a relationship between opponents of devolution in the UK and European integration.  The table below shows the range of constitutional preferences by when members joined the two parties supporting Scottish independence.  The increased membership has resulted in a hardening of support for the Greens’ official position of independence in the EU.

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 18.08.53

The preferred option amongst members of different cohorts of members of both parties is clearly independence in the EU.  We should also note that the SNP Government’s white paper on independence was an unusual document for a nationalist government given the stress placed o inter-dependence and European integration.

Two referendums to take back control

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 European Union referendum were both about taking back control.  Nationalism, it appears, was the prime motive in each case but that does not take us very far in understanding these phenomena.  Gellner defined nationalist as ‘primarily a political principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent’ (Gellner, 1983: 1).  But it is unclear what this means institutionally.  There may be similar motives lying behind these demands but what is being demanded seems to vary significantly.

By comparing the ideologies underpinning the argument for Scottish independence and for leaving the EU, we may tease out the underlying core of nationalism and identify the extent to which nationalism has value as an explanation of these political developments.  What becomes clear is that while a core may be evident and much common rhetoric is employed, the nature of the two nationalisms and their objectives are very different.  It suggests that while nationalism is a useful starting point, it cannot be the end point in any effort to make sense of these recent political developments.  Today, the Conservative Party is emphatically more nationalist than the SNP but some of its leading members still criticize the nationalist mote in the SNP seemingly oblivious to the beam in its own ideology.


Data used in this blog is drawn from the ESRC research project, Recruited by referendum ESRC RG13385-10


Professor James Mitchell is Director of the Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh.



Gellner, Ernest (1983), Nations and Nationalism, Oxford, Blackwell.

Keating, Michael (1988), State and Regional Nationalism, Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Kellas, James (1991), The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity, Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Morgan, Edmund (1988), Inventing the People, W.W. Norton.

Smith, Anthony (1995), Nations and Nationalism in a Global Age, Cambridge, Polity.

Triandafyllidou, Anna (2001), Immigrants and national identity in Europe, London, Routledge.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Does public engagement on NHS service change lead to greater public support for difficult decisions?

Richard Norris, Visiting Fellow, Academy of Government and Director of Scottish Health Council

A recent seminar organised by the Academy of Government, Healthcare Improvement Scotland, and the Usher Institute, explored the issue of public engagement in health service change. We had a mix of academics and researchers, policy people and practitioners, including the third sector.  Bringing together this mix of people is a rare event, and we wanted to explore some key issues, including how Scotland compares with other parts of the UK, and what we expect public engagement to achieve.

Dr Ellen Stewart shared findings from some recent Health Foundation-funded research looking at policy and practice in engaging with the public on healthcare service change across the UK. We heard about the difficulties encountered in reaching a common understanding between NHS organisations and the public they serve on models of service provision and how they should change. I talked about the evidence base for participation: when it is likely to be more successful, and also the occasions where the end result has still been an impasse.

Everyone agrees that engaging with the public about healthcare services is important, but why is it important?

Looking at various policies and guidance over the past 15 years the list of reasons for involving the public includes:

  • Improving the health of the public
  • A catalyst for change
  • Achieving improvement in services
  • Strengthening public confidence in the NHS
  • Demonstrating the NHS listens and takes into account public views
  • Making services more efficient and effective
  • Building community skills and confidence
  • Boosting democratic participation
  • Better outcomes for communities
  • Recognising people’s ‘right to be involved’

These are the reasons set out in policy documents and guidance, but what do the public see as the benefit of participating in healthcare decisions? Looking at research into public views, and comments made by community and campaigning groups, these can be summarised as:

  • To improve services
  • To have a say
  • Understand why things are changing
  • Feel more involved in healthcare issues
  • Develop skills
  • Influencing / lobbying e.g. for resource
  • Preventing proposals which are unpopular


An important issue is the difference between service users and carers being involved in the development of a particular service, and much more wide-ranging public engagement exercises around hospital closures or centralising services. Not surprisingly the latter can be far more contentious, and what is seen as a good outcome for some may not be a good outcome for others. To many it seemed that the difference between say, engagement with service users about a local mental health or diabetes service, and engaging with the wider population about relocating an Accident and Emergency department was not just a difference in scale, but a difference in type. In the smaller and more local exercise, engaging with the public is about getting user and carer views and experience to inform how to improve the service. But in other, population wide, cases, it will be more about meeting democratic expectations and making decisions that are seen to be legitimate.

Particularly in the more challenging areas of relocating or centralising services, the evidence that good public engagement necessarily leads to decisions that command greater public support is not as clear, although some public engagement is a lot more likely to produce a greater level of support than no engagement at all. There are case studies (for example on the NHS Confederation website and Scottish Health Council reports) that give examples of where public engagement has led to decisions that command greater support. But there are also plenty of examples where public engagement has not resulted in proposals that command broad support. In some cases, NHS organisations have pushed ahead, against public opposition. In other cases, plans have been changed, or halted. Either way the result has not been strengthened public confidence in the NHS, or a consensus that services have been improved.

Maybe as well as getting a local perspective which provides essential evidence to inform the best decision, it is important to ensure that people have the chance to give their views because they have the right to be heard, for differences of opinion to be aired, and NHS organisations to gauge the range, and strength, of public views. In this scenario there are no right or wrong answers, but there are good or bad ways to make the decision.

Deliberative approaches (like Citizen’s Juries), where a small number of the public spend time hearing evidence and discussing alternatives, offer some options for reaching better decisions. But this is best done before issues become too polarised, and may not always find a consensual way forward. A recent review of 66 Citizen’s Juries around the world that were about healthcare found that few Juries’ rulings were transferred into policy and practice. However this remains an area worth investigating as a way of exploring alternative options to unpopular proposals.

Four key points came out of the discussion:

  1. We should learn where we can from other parts of the UK but also bear in mind that Scotland has a clear legal structure and policy direction in terms of public participation, and the creation of Health and Social Care Partnerships is a huge opportunity to make more progress.


  1. Participation may not create consensus, but it will provide an opportunity to explore and understand different points of view. Professionals do not have a monopoly on ‘rationality’, expertise or evidence. Community concerns about transport (for example) are very rational. What the public brings to discussions is important evidence. Sometimes people talk about the public having an emotional investment, but so do professionals.


  1. Decisions may be wrong, and should always be subject to review. The world is messy, not linear. It may be difficult to have conversations about unsafe services, but risk is subjective. Decisions to close hospitals can transfer risk to different parts of the system, e.g. primary care.


  1. In Scotland there is a protectiveness and defensiveness around institutions and there is a need for a more open culture. And the ‘politics’ of service change should not be underestimated. People’s lives are political, and conflict can be a good thing.


So no easy answers, but if we can be realistic about the prospects of public engagement achieving consensus, it perhaps focuses us more usefully on how to develop processes that are open, transparent, and seen to be fair.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What next for the Liberal Democrats?

Margaret Smith, former Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh West.

Much was expected of the Lib Dems going into this year’s elections.

In Scotland, Willie Rennie confidently told his party’s Spring Conference that they spoke for the majority in Scotland who were for the UK and for the European Union.

In my former seat of Edinburgh West, Lib Dem canvassers were receiving a warmer reception on doorsteps than at any time since 2010. Lib Dem activists dared to dream that voters were starting to forgive them.

While the Scottish Lib Dem campaign message may have been less singularly drawn than the Scots Tories’ one it was bold and clear – stop the SNP’s plans for Indy ref 2.

The Scots Lib Dem contingent of Christine Jardine, Jo Swinson, Jamie Stone and Alistair Carmichael know that they benefitted from the very different election being fought in Scotland. They also know they need to maintain opposition to a second referendum and be a strong voice on Scotland’s distinctive Brexit needs or those gains might be short lived.

Despite the 50% fightback in terms of seats the UK share of the vote fell from the 2015 disaster when the party haemorrhaged 49 seats.

There are a number of reasons for this


The party’s key manifesto proposal was to hold another referendum on the Brexit deal. This was arguably the right policy but it was the  wrong time. The prospect of yet another referendum filled most voters with despair. It was also a position which was open to being attacked as undemocratic and inconsistent with the indy ref 2 position. It led to the sort of pin head dancing which even Vince Cable struggled to finesse.

Truth is Lib Dem members are split on what to do next. Some want the party to accept the EU vote and get on with arguing for the best deal. There’s some optimism that the DUP arrangement will falter, a new Tory leader will emerge and that enough MPs will be prepared to work together to deliver a softer Brexit.  Meanwhile other fundamentalist Lib Dem voices, many of whom have joined since last June, argue that the party was too timid and should have stood on a clear hardline platform of reversing Article 50.

Labour success

The Lib Dems hopes of picking up Remain voters were dashed by a resurgent Labour party. Newly released from a scarring coalition the Lib Dems have failed to capitalise on Labour’s recent difficulties  because too many traditional Lib Dem voters have switched off from even the party’s most redistributive policies. A well run Corbyn campaign and a Labour manifesto which contained positive hopeful policies compared well against the battered compromised Lib Dems. Corbyn was able to go on the offensive and promise young people an end to tuition fees. That Nick Clegg lost his Sheffield Hallam seat as a result of greater numbers of young people turning out to support Labour seemed particularly fitting.

Labour ran a clever campaign when it came to Brexit positioning. The bulk of Remain voters and constituencies went in Labour’s favour despite the party’s support for Brexit. That’s a lot of people who may end up feeling about Corbyn in the future as today’s generation of students feel about Clegg.


Faced with the swing to Labour the Lib Dems fell into the classic squeezed position of struggling to stay relevant. An embattled Tim Farron ruled out doing a coalition deal with both Tories or Labour because they were both pro Brexit parties but also because coalition has become a dirty word for many Lib Dems.

The newly elected Lib Dem group are on an election footing, looking to take early advantage of the profile raising opportunities of dealing with a minority government to build alliances, win concessions on public services, highlight the ambiguity of Labour’s position and keep pressure on the Tories to abandon their Hard Brexit.  The announcement that they will seek an end to the pay cap for emergency workers is a good example of the populist policies the party needs to pursue.

Following Tim Farron’s announcement that he’s standing down there’s genuine concern that the membership will again be presented with a choice of white middle aged males or no choice at all. One third of the Westminster group is now female but the excellent Deputy Leader Jo Swinson has ruled herself out of the contest. Several senior and life long liberals have already told me they won’t be voting.

Sir Vince Cable is the sole candidate to declare so far. Ed Davey is also thought to be contemplating standing. Both carry coalition baggage which opponents will exploit but the prospect of a further election in the coming months may well play into Cable’s hands as the more recognisable candidate…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What next for the big problems of the UK economy?

Professor Simon Clark, Head of School of Economics, Edinburgh University

During the general election campaign remarkably little was said about Brexit, despite Theresa May calling the election in order to strengthen her negotiating hand. So it might be thought that the election result of a hung parliament would have done little to resolve any of the uncertainties around the Brexit negotiations. By conventional wisdom that’s bad for confidence and investment. But if we look harder the election has settled much.

Politically, sentiment in the House of Commons seems to have shifted away from a hard Brexit, and without an overall majority that will influence the Government’s negotiation stance.

However, there is a deeper implication to be drawn from this election that might affect how we think about Europe. Although little was said about Brexit explicitly, the campaign was all about Brexit. Or to be more precise, it was about those issues that in the referendum made people vote one way or another: austerity, public services, the fairness of the tax system, the perception of entrenched inequalities in UK society.

On 23 June 2016 the answer to these problems seemed to many to be to leave the EU, so that the UK could regain control over trade, immigration, and its laws. But the uncomfortable truth is there is no serious economic question to which the best answer is ‘Brexit’.

Many of the big problems of the UK economy have been around for decades: low productivity growth, poor transport links, the low level of housing starts, the lack of a coherent long term energy policy. The solutions to these problems lie entirely within the sphere of our own domestic policy and are only negligibly constrained, if at all, by our membership of the EU. Similarly, the blessing of increased longevity also brings its own problems, and the ‘dementia tax’ turned out to be a key issue of the election campaign. Again, the answer is nothing to do with the EU.

The focus during the campaign was understandably on what can be changed at Westminster: taxes, the NHS, social care, ownership of public utilities, affordable housing, who pays for higher education; i.e. how to fix Britain’s chronic economic and social problems. Of course, Europe was not absent from the debate, but it is remarkable how little EU membership would either help or hinder the actual implementation of many of the main parties’ policies.

So here are two questions, one for the leavers, and one for the remainers. If leaving the EU is the key to thriving in the global economy beyond Europe, how come the most successful exporter of machine tools to China is Germany, a country at the heart of the European project?  And to the remainers: we joined the Common Market over forty years ago, so why is productivity stagnant, why is economic mobility so low, why do we have an almost permanent current account deficit?

The answer to these questions lies in the educational and industrial policies that we have adopted, domestic policies decided in the UK. That is not to say the EU is irrelevant: it creates trade between members and diverts trade from non-members; and it is a source of both skilled and unskilled labour.

But the election campaign put Europe into perspective. It is neither the root cause of our problems, nor a magic solution to them.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What next for Race Equality?

Nasar Meer, Professor of Race, Identity and Citizenship, School of Social and Political Science, Edinburgh University

“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”, so Theresa May told us on the steps of 10 Downing Street as she assumed office in 2016.  Seems like a rather long time ago now, but in an effort to capture the mercurial centre ground thought to be vacated by a Corbyn led Labour Party, one of her first moves was to set up a race disparity audit.

As somebody who participated in this, and convened an expert group on Scotland to feed into it, with the best will in the world it will likely confirm what we already know. Namely, and as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) showed in statement that brought together lots of existing research, ethnic and racial disparities continue to be a fundamental part of the fabric of society in the UK.  Some contemporary and indicative EHRC findings include:

  • Significantly higher unemployment rates for Black and Ethnic Minorities (BAME) (as an aggregate about 12.9% compared with 6.3 % for White people).
  • BAME employees with degrees earn 23.1% less on average than White workers – confirming this is no longer a ‘supply side’ deficit.
  • Amongst Black-African and Black-Caribbean groups, just 6% of school leavers attended a Russell Group university (compared with 11% of White school leavers).
  • Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black adults are more likely to live in substandard accommodation than White people (around 30% compared with round 8%).
  • Rates of prosecution and sentencing for Black people are three times higher than for White people –18 per thousand population compared with six per thousand population for White people. For sentencing it was 13 per thousand population for Black people and five per thousand population for White people.

As if to demonstrate the law of unintended consequences, the only marked improvement under May’s tenure has been the increase of BAME parliamentarians that came with the 2017 general election (an increase of 9 for Labour and 2 for the Conservatives, taking the total to 52).

Beyond this most of the entrenched inequalities will remain in place; they might assume some prominence when events make them difficult to ignore, but a serious commitment to challenging institutional racism, for example, is likely to be politically unpalatable, if it is even recognised as a problem (not least because governing parties are often contributing to it – anybody recall May’s ‘Go Home’ billboards?).

What is especially dynamic at the moment and worth watching out for is the governance around race equality as public policy. This is something that spans public administration, and civil and criminal law, often forged through hard won anti-racist struggles.  We might divide this legislation into three kinds:

(a) that which was created in the UK

(b) that which flows from membership of the European Union

(c) that which is a combination of the two

With Brexit negotiations underway, the key question will to what extent withdrawal from the EU revises a, b, or c?  Whatever the current governments mandates, it will be difficult – although not impossible – for a post-Brexit administration to unpick the domestication of race equality components of the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999), especially since the UK was already compliant with race equality provisions (and indeed these came about at an EU level precisely because of the UK’s tested approach).  For example, the Equality Act 2010 is not merely about being compliant with EU directives, but reflects an endogenous trajectory in incorporating the existing race equality provisions.

This means that the sunk costs are likely to be sufficiently ‘sticky’ regardless of what James Madison termed the ‘mischief of faction’.  This should not be taken to imply that Brexit will not diminish race equality in the UK.  In terms of the politics, if the ‘policy image’ of race equality comes to be associated with an EU imposition, rather than an endogenous creation, it becomes much more contested by those seeking to uncouple as much as they can from the EU.  Put in other terms, if race equality becomes part of the ‘collateral rhetoric’ of Brexit, rather than a longstanding – though unsettled and incomplete – UK development, then the symbolic politics of this would do great harm.

Equally, in the area of trade agreements there may well be economic incentives to reduce equality protections that would bear either a direct or indirect discriminatory outcome for BAME groups.  Trading off race equality in the name of efficiency and competitiveness is a very real concern, but to some extent this would mark an accelerated roll back on commitments already bearing a precarious status.  For example, the Coalition Government (2010–15) significantly undermined features of the Equality Act 2010 in the name of deregulation and competitiveness.

The point being that UK governments already have the capacity to roll back from race equality commitments, and have shown the political will to do so, independent of other developments. As such the status of existing settlements are subject to their own dynamics too, in a way that cannot be explained by Brexit alone.

If nothing else, Brexit is a reminder that anti-racism is an unsettled, incomplete and on-going pursuit. It requires sustained mobilisation through actors, institutions and ideas, now as much as ever.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What Next for English Votes for English Laws?

Stephen Tierney

This post asks: what, if any, impact is a hung Parliament likely to have upon the relatively new House of Commons procedure known as ‘English Votes for English laws (EVEL)’? Will a minority Conservative Government, propped up by the DUP, find its England-only legislative plans disrupted? And what of England’s constitutional position more broadly?

EVEL was introduced to the House of Commons in 2015 as a non-statutory modification to parliamentary procedure. The Cameron Government’s intention was to address the West Lothian question, whereby: ‘MPs representing the devolved nations are able to debate and vote in the House of Commons on laws only affecting England, while MPs for English constituencies cannot debate or legislate on devolved matters in the other nations.’ The system, which has operated for two years, in effect creates a double veto whereby the House of Commons as a whole can still reject matters agreed by English MPs, but where bills certified by the Speaker to be English-only matters must be approved by a majority of all MPs from English constituencies at Committee stage.

The current EVEL system falls a long way short of formal devolution for England. The House of Lords Constitution Committee observed in a report on the system published in November 2016 that, while the system prevents laws being passed in England-only areas without the support of a majority of English MPs, it does not create a route for the formation of specifically English policies: ‘the capacity of English MPs to pursue a distinct legislative agenda for England in respect of matters that are devolved elsewhere does not equate to the broader capacity of devolved legislatures to pursue a distinct agenda on matters that are devolved to them.’


The fact that legislation for England, even though dealing with matters otherwise devolved to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, must still be approved by the whole House was not problematic while the Conservative Government from 2015-17 not only controlled a majority of seats in the House of Commons in England and Wales but an overall UK majority too. But the Conservative party now has a minority of UK MPs among whom are 13 from Scotland and eight from Wales. In practice this in itself should not be a major problem for the EVEL system. The Conservatives have a majority of English MPs. But it is the case that to secure England-only policies it will require the support not only of these MPs in the England-only Committee stage, but also of Conservative MPs from outside England as well as the DUP at Third Reading. If there is dissension among ‘English’ Conservative MPs in relation to any measure, it is not inconceivable that the bill could be pushed through Parliament with the support of Scottish and Welsh Conservative MPs, together with the DUP, even where the bill had not secured an England-only majority in Committee.


This scenario is unlikely, but it does highlight that the new EVEL arrangements are somewhat flimsy, dependent for their efficacy upon the vagaries of each general election. For example, had Labour been able to form a government with the support of SNP MPs and Welsh MPs from Labour and Plaid Cymru, the issue of EVEL would have become very prominent indeed.


None of this however, I would submit, constitutes an argument to alter the 2015 model which hitherto has worked fairly well. In is in fact a reasonable compromise that tries to accommodate the wishes of the English electorate within the deeply (and unavoidably) asymmetrical nature of our territorial constitution. In a report on the Union and Devolution, the House of Lords Constitution Committee took the view that: ‘the English Question remains one of the central unresolved issues facing decision-makers grappling with the UK’s territorial constitution.’ This is undoubtedly true, but it seems inevitable that it will remain an unresolved issue. England is too big for the kind of devolution that the other territories of the UK enjoy. Nor is EVEL an area that lends itself easily to legislation. A statute to regulate legislative procedure would potentially embroil the courts in the internal workings of Parliament itself, endangering the very legislative supremacy that undergirds our unwritten and flexible constitution. The Commons should carry on as it has, carefully tacking across volatile electoral winds, and adjusting its procedures to give the best effect possible to a distinctive English voice within one national Parliament.

Stephen Tierney works at Edinburgh Law School where he is Vice Dean, Professor of Constitutional Theory and Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law. He served as Legal Adviser to the House of Lords Constitution Committee in relation to both reports mentioned in the blog. The post is written in his personal capacity.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What next for the debate on electoral reform?

Juliet Swann, authority on electoral systems; gender, politics and public policy; with wide experience in campaign, rights and reform organisations


The June 2017 election results show that a few voters are deciding for the many, and political party discussions and decisions behind closed doors mean even those few are not fully informed about their choices and the implications of their vote. We should be insisting on proportional representation and forenotice of coalition ‘red lines’ before the next General Election.

So here we are, it’s June 2017 and we’re back in a ‘coalition of chaos’ – literally, because neither of the two parties involved in coalition discussions were even remotely challenged to propose what they might or might not give or take in a negotiation if there were a minority government. Why?

Initially, because the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system and its advocates will tell us that its  heart is ‘certainty’ – the reliability that one party will win.

Secondly because all the polls suggested a Conservative majority that could only be threatened by a ‘progressive pact’, the idea of which was used or dismissed by every party to promote their ideal of winning. (Which when you’re the SNP or the Lib Dems in a Westminster election is ridiculous).

So no-one discussed their red lines, the policies they might be prepared to discuss if considering a partnership or even a confidence and supply arrangement. No-one set apart the policies they would never give up as opposed to the ones they might sacrifice.

And yet, twice now in three elections the voters have delivered a minority government that had to form a coalition.

Why does that matter?

Because without that distinction, without that conversation, we, the electorate have no idea what we’re actually voting for. We’ve realised we have multiple choices, but our political parties aren’t giving us the chance to make an informed choice beyond ‘we will win’.

In a PR system, parties know they might have to bargain to get power. They might have to compromise, to debate, to argue their corner to win policy change. Instead our parties put up a manifesto they know they probably won’t be able to deliver, especially our smaller parties. We all vote based on their promises, and then they might deliver some of it, or not.

This election has proved this beyond any other. If you thought the Lib Dems going back on their tuition pledge was a big deal, welcome to the Conservative / DUP coalition negotiations.

We have no idea what the Tory red lines are. And we have no idea what Labour might give up. Or indeed what the SNP might compromise. Because they all claimed to be in it to win it, and none of them would EVER chat to any other. Oh please, give over. We’re not stupid, we know you’ll succumb to an offer of power if it’s put in front of you.

Which brings us to the issue of whether voting for one party tacitly lets another win. There’s been some descriptions of Scotland ‘allowing’ Theresa May to stay at Downing Street as without those 13 MPs the Conservatives would have had even less of a majority. Which is mathematically correct. But even if one assumes the second placed candidate took the place of the Conservative winner, and gives the SNP all 13 of the Conservative seats in Scotland, Theresa May still has more seats than anyone else, so she would still have first dibs at forming a government. And in any case, there’s no way of knowing what the electorate might do or have done differently on a different day, or what might have happened if fewer people voted, or if more people voted.

We can never extrapolate the results of an election into a different voting system, or indeed into a scenario where ‘if only the voters had known X, Y or Z’. To try and do so is a fool’s errand. That’s the point of elections, they are a snapshot of what those who can be bothered voting choose to do with their vote within the system they are voting in. In Scotland we have usually been quite canny with our choices – understanding for example that the SNP will never form a government at Westminster so they never won more than half a dozen seats until the anti-indyref result rebellion of 2015, despite their success at Holyrood.

And if, as it seems, we have entered an era where the main parties can expect to all receive around 40% of the vote (the SNP received around this percentage in Scotland), then it becomes a question of how individual constituencies perform that can shift power. Which gives voters in those seats a disproportionate say in how the country is governed. Which is another reason that moving to a more proportional system wouldn’t just provide for a better informed voter going into the polling booth, but would also ensure that voter had an equal say in the future government of the country.

What’s more, those voters would have a clear idea of the red lines each party would seek to uphold in any coalition negotiations. Rather than dealing with surprise partnerships and unpredicted deals.

Scientia potentia est ‘Knowledge is power’

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment