By William James
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain on Thursday approved its biggest constitutional change in decades, giving English lawmakers a veto over legislation that only applies to England, despite fierce opposition from Scottish nationalists.
Critics say the plan, part of a wider scheme of devolution among Britain's constituent nations, deepens the divide between England and Scotland at a time when question marks hang over the future of their 300-year-old union.
After an impassioned debate, lawmakers voted 312 to 270 in favor of the reforms, which primarily seek to resolve the fact that lawmakers representing regions in Scotland can vote on legislation which only affects England.
The Conservative government promised ahead of May national elections to address the imbalance, saying that it was unfair to English voters and fueled resentment.
"I want the United Kingdom to remain secure and intact," senior government minister Chris Grayling told parliament. "It cannot be in any of our interests to see English people becoming cynical about the union and perhaps even wishing for its end."
The issue, which has simmered in British politics since 1977, came to the boil last year after the government promised to expand the remit of Scotland's devolved parliament, in a late bid to persuade Scots to reject independence at a referendum.
That decision reopened old grievances over the balance of lawmaking power across the United Kingdom. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have devolved administrations with varying degrees of authority, whilst English laws are solely determined in the overarching British parliament.
Under the arrangements passed on Thursday, legislation which is deemed to affect only England will have to be approved by a committee of lawmakers based in English constituencies before being voted on by all members of parliament. The new stage hands an effective veto to English lawmakers.
That has been strongly opposed by Scottish National Party (SNP) lawmakers who say it will give them second-class status in parliament and strengthen animosity in Scotland towards the British government.
"Scotland is watching this, and the mood is darkening," SNP spokesman Pete Wishart told parliament. "You could not have contrived of a more inept way to save the union - support for independence is actually increasing."
The SNP in May won 56 of 59 Scottish seats in the 650-seat parliament on the back of a surge in support, despite Scots rejecting independence by 55 percent to 45 percent at a referendum last September.
The party says it still wants an independent Scotland, and is working to build public support before pushing for a second referendum.
The opposition Labour Party also voted against the proposals, which it said were poorly constructed and had been pushed through parliament without enough scrutiny.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)