Why Is It So Hard to Answer the West Lothian Question?

After it was clear that Scotland would stay in the Union, David Cameron made a bold statement:

It is absolutely right that a new and fair settlement for Scotland should be accompanied by a new and fair settlement that applies to all parts of our United Kingdom…I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.

The West Lothian question is one of the British constitution’s many Gordian Knots. The crux of the issue is that MPs from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can have a say on matters that affect only England, but English MPs have no say on matters that affect only Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland since they are now the preserve of the devolved legislatures. Although the West Lothian question is popularly associated with Tam Dalyell (Labour MP for West Lothian),[1] the underlying issue has been recognized since the nineteenth-century debates over Irish Home Rule.

The West Lothian question is far from academic. During Tony Blair’s premiership, the votes of Scottish MPs helped create foundation hospitals and impose tuition fees for higher education even though those policies wouldn’t affect Scotland.

Unfortunately, attempts to answer the West Lothian question are often as problematic as the question itself. Cameron’s call for English votes for English laws makes a catchy sound bite, but actually implementing such a policy would give rise to a host of problems. One option would be to bar non-English MPs from voting on matters that affect only England. However, this would arguably turn non-English MPs into second-class citizens, and identifying England-only matters might not be as straightforward as it seems. Restricting the votes of non-English MPs could also make it difficult to determine whether a Government enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons. What happens if a Government wins a majority of seats throughout the United Kingdom but only has a minority of English seats? Can it still be said to have the confidence of the Commons even though it might not be able to legislate for England?

Malcolm Rifkind has suggested an alternative where English legislation is referred to an English Grand Committee consisting of all MPs from English constituencies (there are already similar committees for Scotland,[2] Wales, and Northern Ireland). However, there would have to be a convention that the whole House wouldn’t overturn the Grand Committee’s decisions. While this avoids the pitfall of having a two-tier Commons, England would still be at a disadvantage since it wouldn’t have an independent executive.

A more radical option would be to transfer responsibility for English affairs to a devolved English Parliament. This is arguably the most conclusive answer to the West Lothian question, but it tends to get short shrift from politicians, who often claim that an English Parliament would be little more than a debating society for the political classes. I’ve always found this argument more than a little specious. After all, one could have made a similar argument about the other devolved legislatures, yet most people today would probably agree that they are an asset to the United Kingdom.

However, an English Parliament has the potential to open up an entirely different can of worms. England is by far the most populous part of the United Kingdom (England has a population of 53 million; Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland together have a population of 10 million), and its regions are markedly different from one another. Devolution is supposed to bring power closer to the people, but an English Parliament could end up being just as monolithic and remote as the one at Westminster.

One way around this would be regional government. This is nothing new, of course. Labour tried to set up elected regional assemblies in the early 2000s, but they shelved the project after a referendum in North East England produced a huge majority against the proposed assembly. The lesson of that fiasco is that the voters aren’t interested in regional government if it looks like an exercise in bureaucratic tinkering. But there are plans for meaningful regional government out there, and they might be the missing piece of the English devolution puzzle.

The main danger of regional government is that it could lead to the Balkanization of England. There would probably need to be some sort of national government to facilitate interregional cooperation and harmonize competing interests. However, the responsibilities of the two tiers would have to be carefully balanced to ensure that neither side was a cipher for the other.

Cameron will have to tread carefully as he tries to answer the West Lothian question. Although he will be under a great deal of pressure to come up with a quick solution, he shouldn’t allow his backbenchers to bounce him into an overhasty decision. He needs to resist the siren calls of populism and partisan advantage and come up with a solution that will stand the test of time.

NOTES 

[1] During a debate on Scottish devolution in 1977, Dalyell asked “how long will English constituencies and English hon. Members tolerate not just 71 Scots, 36 Welsh and a number of Ulstermen but at least 119 hon. Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Ireland?” (HC Deb, vol. 939, col. 122)

[2] The Scottish Grand Committee now seems to be defunct, however.

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One Response to Why Is It So Hard to Answer the West Lothian Question?

  1. Pingback: Labour’s English Committee Won’t Answer the West Lothian Question | A Venerable Puzzle

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