POLITICS

Scottish Independence: What Is The West Lothian Question And Is There An Answer To It?

19/09/2014 11:55 BST | Updated 19/09/2014 11:59 BST
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Anti-independence Better Together 'no' campaigners, hold a Union flag as they celebrate the result of Fife local authority's declaration, during the Scottish independence referendum announcements at the Royal Highland Center in Edinburgh, U.K., on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Scotland voted to remain in the U.K. after an independence referendum that put the future of the 307-year-old union on a knife edge and risked years of political and financial turmoil. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a parliamentary debate on devolution to Scotland and Wales on 14 November 1977, the then Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, rose to his feet to speak. "For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate.. at least 119 Honourable 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 Northern Ireland?" he asked.

His pointed query became known as the 'West Lothian Question' and it has been left unanswered by the Westminster political and media establishment for the past 37 years.

tam dalyell

It was Labour MP Tam Dalyell who first raised the West Lothian Question in 1977

Until now, that is. Responding to the anti-independence Scottish referendum result on Friday morning, Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear he wanted to address, once and for all, this fundamental constitutional and political anomaly - whereby Scottish MPs can vote on matters like education and health that affect England but English MPs can't vote on similar matters for Scotland which are under the purview of the devolved parliament in Edinburgh.

"The question of English votes for English laws - the so-called West Lothian question - requires a decisive answer," said the PM, speaking outside Number 10 Downing Street. "So, just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland."

Coming up with a "decisive answer" to the West Lothian Question, however, is easier said than done. "There is no simple solution," the devolution expert Alan Trench, of UCL's Constitution Unit, tells me.

So, what are the prime minister's options?

ENGLISH VOTES FOR ENGLISH LAWS?

The preferred option for many Conservatives is “English votes for English laws” or EVEL. It's often called the "in and out" solution as it involves MPs participating in some votes in the Commons, but not in others, depending on whether they're voting on an English or a Scottish matter, and depending on which constituency they represent - a Scottish or an English one.

Cameron has put William Hague, the leader of the Commons, in charge of coming up with his "decisive answer". As Tory party leader, in July 1999, Hague said that "English MPs should have exclusive say over English laws.. People will become increasingly resentful that decisions are being made in England by people from other parts of the UK on matters that English people did not have a say on elsewhere ... I think it is a dangerous thing to allow resentment to build up in a country. We have got to make the rules fair now."

Such a move today, by Hague and the Conservative-led coalition, would be popular: polling conducted by the left-leaning IPPR thinktank shows that 79% of English voters say that Scottish MPs should be prevented from voting on English matters.

There are, however, three key problems with this potentially populist proposal. First, the principled objection: how can you have two classes of MPs? Aren't all MPs elected equally, under equal rules, to a national, sovereign parliament in Westminster? To exclude democratically-elected members of parliament from debates or votes in the Commons, on the grounds of geography, in a non-federal United Kingdom, would require a wholesale rewriting of the parliamentary and constitutional rules of practise. Otherwise, there'd be a serious (il)legitimacy issue.

Then there is the practical objection. Is it even possible to untangle English legislative issues from Scottish, Welsh and northern Irish issues? Would Scottish MPs be excluded from voting on the Budget and other finance-related matters, for example, given the fact that the Barnett Formula, which sets public expenditure levels in Scotland, is based on the Treasury's overall spending and taxation decisions in London? Are there that many truly English-only legislative matters?

Listen to the verdict of Alan Trench: "[EVEL] would involve huge upheaval in Whitehall because legislation affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland tends to be intertwined with legislation affecting England."

Finally, there's the politics of it. Labour, which according to the opinion polls is heading for victory in next May's general election, is adamantly opposed to barring Scottish MPs from voting on so-called English matters. Of the 59 MPs elected from Scotland in the 2010 general election, 41 are Labour while just one is Conservative. Previous Labour governments have relied on Scottish votes in the Commons to push through controversial measures such as 'top up fees' and the creation of NHS foundation hospitals. As the New Statesman's George Eaton notes: "The Tories are keenly aware that denying Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs the right to vote on English-only legislation could leave future Labour governments in office but not in power, handing the Conservatives an effective veto."

cameron david

David Cameron wants a 'decisive answer' to the West Lothian Question

So Labour, understandably, isn't keen. There might, however, be a softer alternative, as proposed by, among others, the former Tory cabinet minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind, which excludes Scottish MPs from the committee stages of an 'England-only' bill, thereby creating what's been called an 'English Grand Committee' in parliament. "One of the risks that Labour now runs," says Trench, "is that failing to adopt a soft version of [EVEL], they'll find themselves saddled with a more rigid one to appease the Conservative right."

ENGLISH PARLIAMENT?

The Scots have a Scottish Parliament, so why can't the English just have their own English Parliament? Sounds simple, right?

Maybe not. First, do we really want an extra layer of bureaucracy, an extra layer of politicians, civil servants and special advisers, all with generous salaries and controversial expenses? During the last Labour government, via a 2004 referendum, English voters in the North East overwhelmingly rejected the opportunity for a new regional assembly on precisely these grounds.

Second, am English parliament would represent 85% of the UK's population, thereby dwarfing the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly and, according to Trench, "that is not a recipe for a lasting or stable union. No federal system with any comparable imbalance has been able to last for long."

alex salmond

A new English parliament might be a gift to Alex Salmond and the Scottish nationalists

It would therefore provide an open goal for the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and undermine, rather than strengthen, unionism. As LabourList's Mark Ferguson explains: "All attention would be sucked towards an English Parliament and English issues to the absolute detriment and exclusion of anything else from anywhere else."

FEWER SCOTTISH MPS?

If it is unfair for Scottish MPs to have a legislative impact on so-called English issues, why not reduce the number of Scottish MPs in the House of Commons? This is known as the 'Stormont discount' - reducing the number of MPs from Scotland in the same way that the number of MPs from Northern Ireland was cut between 1922 and 1972.

The problem with this proposal is two-fold. First, Scottish MPs would have a reduced say on English-only issues such as education but they would then also have a reduced say on non-devolved, non-English-only issues such as defence and national security. How is that fair? Second, their legislative influence on England-related bills at Westminster would be reduced - but it would still exist, whether the number of Scottish MPs was 59, 49 or 29. As long as they're in the Commons, they can vote.

As the Liberal politician Sir William Harcourt said to William Gladstone, more than 100 years ago, when the latter was struggling - and failing - to find a solution to this same issue, in the context of Irish 'Home Rule' and Westminster representation, 50 Irish MPs could still be as influential as 100, and that therefore "you don’t get rid of [Irish interference] any more than the young woman did of the baby by saying it’s such a little one".

DO NOTHING?

Why rock the boat? Despite the divisive bluster from Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party (should that be 'English Independence Party'?), and a handful of Tory backbench MPs, does the average English voter really care about this particular constitutional anomaly? Does the unanswered 'West Lothian Question' keep her up at night? Or take priority over the issues of jobs, housing, living standards, immigration, national security and the rest?

The Spectator writer Alex Massie, who is a pro-union Scot, believes "the best – if still imperfect – answer to the West Lothian Question is simply to stop asking it. Ignoring it won’t make it go away but leaving it alone causes less trouble than addressing it".

Perhaps he has a point. If there was a neat or easy solution to it, we'd have tried it by now.

And, as constitutional expert, Guy Lodge, from the IPPR, has remarked, "I have often thought that if Gladstone can't fix it, who can?"

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