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January 27, 2006

Why the West Lothian Question may become the key issue at the next general election, argues Jeremy Black

Posted by Jeremy Black

The West Lothian Question - the fact that, post-devolution, Scottish Westminster MPs can still vote on Westminster legislation, on for example health and education, where it does not affect Scotland - could become the key issue at the next general election, argues Prof. Jeremy Black.

The West Lothian Question is in part a dummy run for the next election. The very real possibility that Labour may only hold onto power because of Scottish votes is one that has not yet received sufficient public attention.

Labour produced what was, at least for its ends, a brilliant constitutional solution in 1997: pushing through a Scottish Assembly in order to assuage nationalist pressure in Scotland, while leaving Scotland able to play a key role to ensure its future political position and legislative programme in Westminster. Rather like the terms of our relationship with the European Union, it is far from clear that this situation can be redressed, which means that some commentators will at least think of the option of severance.

Criticism of the Scottish position draws forward in response the usual suspects in the press: Magnus Linklater in The Times is particularly complacent, unreflective and unfair in his treatment of criticism, an apt companion for Peter Riddell in his treatment of Euro-scepticism.

Yet, there is no clear answer bar self-interest and historical fixing for why Scottish MPs should vote on English matters but their English counterparts not be able to do the same, why Scottish voters - even after their representation went down from 72 MPs to 59 MPs at the 2005 general election - should be over-represented in the number of MPs, and why Scotland should receive so much more per capita from the national exchequer. Average spending on the NHS for example is considerably higher than in the English regions.

There is an urgent need for the Conservatives - as the alternative party of government - to address these issues as a matter of party policy. Kenneth Baker's bill in the Lords - to stop Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on issues that affect only England - deserves much more serious consideration and attention than it has so far received. The Conservative Party - if they wish to make headway on this issue - should not hesitate to use the language of fairness. This does not mean ending the Union or aping a crude English nationalism, but, instead, arguing that a Union that is demonstrably unfair is devoid of the positive qualities and consequences that encourage respect and support.

If the shabby job that is the current arrangement is maintained this will do great harm to the constitution and further contribute to the moral bankruptcy of the devolution project.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

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I am becoming increasingly angry about this situation. I'm not yet at the point where I will march on Westminster with a pitchfork, but I fear that will be the only way to settle it in the end.
Democracy is my right, not a privilege that Scottish New Labour can steal from me to suit their auld enemy agenda.
England's MPs are not only shameless and useless, but they are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
What annoys me more than anything, is that this useless bunch are leaving it until ordinary, law abiding people like me are angry enough to want to fight for our rights, when we really shouldn't have to.
Our spineless MPs are solely responsible for the ultimate ending, which will be the complete break up of the UK. And if this is what the union mean, then good riddance to it. The sooner the better as far as I'm concerned. This English granny has chosen sides already.

Posted by: Della Petch at January 27, 2006 02:21 PM

Tony Blair and New Labour will be remembered as being responsible for destroying the Union, along with the Conservative Party, the Lib Dems, and the press published in England.
They are building up massive resentment in England by virtually ignoring the democratic deficit left by devolution. I include the Conservatives because their pathetic English Votes proposals are nothing but a red herring. English Votes would only work when a Tory government is in power, could easliy be reversed, and makes no provision for an English Executive.
It will be interesting to see how much media coverage is given to Frank Field MP's amendment to Clause 102 of the Wales Bill due to debated in the House on Monday 30/1.
Probably zero!

Posted by: HomeRuleforEngland at January 27, 2006 02:47 PM

Of course there is no reason why Scottish and Welsh MPs should vote on English legislation without English MPs being able to vote on the concommitant legislation of the devolved administrations.

In terms of the General Election there is another related question, one that could well play a huge part: Why should a Gordon Brown executive exercise its authority over England when Gordon Brown is democratically unaccountable to the people of England over huge swathes of Government policy? Indeed, Labour do not even have the plurailty of the vote in England, so they lack the moral authority to legislate for England on all matters that they have devolved to Scotland. At the moment, thanks to a gerrymandered constitution, they have the greatest number of seats, but should that change, leaving them relying on Scottish and Welsh MPs to govern England then the UK will rapidly disintergrate.

Peter Hain has recently asserted that to bar Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English matters would be “dangerous and wrong”, and that such a measure would risk “fanning the flames of English nationalism”. He goes further than that by stating that “To prevent Welsh MPs from voting on certain classes of parliamentary business...would disenfranchise Welsh voters”. It would not disenfranchise Welsh voters anymore than English voters were disenfranchised by Welsh devolution, and it would not be anymore “dangerous and wrong” than Labour's devolution to Scotland and Wales. And, quite frankly, it is Labour themselves that have fanned the flames of English nationalism by shattering the concept of a unitary state and abusing English goodwill by imposing an asymmetrical constitution that so obviously discriminates against England.

I hope to hear more from the Social Affairs Unit on this matter, it is a most pressing concern; one that threatens Parliamentary democracy as we know it.

Posted by: Gareth Young at January 27, 2006 03:39 PM

Well done for raising this considerable injustice. It's interesting that it is uniting English people both on the left and the right of politics who wouldn't normally agree on anything. I do not believe it is in our MP's interests to raise it, which is why most of that craven bunch don't.
It is largely a taboo subject in the press in England and with the BBC, but ironically, it is getting prominence in the press in Scotland and Wales, where, to their credit, many people also believe it is a swindle, of which they want no part.
It is because of this sort of nonsense that Parliament is increasingly becoming an irrelevance to people, (who are not bothered that their MP is gay but who do care that they are not properly represented) and sooner or later there will be a reckoning.

Posted by: John at January 27, 2006 04:07 PM

The danger to the Union isn't widespread revolt, but rather just the opposite, complete apathy. If the English turn their back on the Union then it will only take a small number of nationalists to trigger the breakup, and the lack of interest amongst the majority in preserving the Union will doom it.

And making the English second-class citizens within their own country is stirring up a quiet resentment that makes this more likely by the day.

What's significant about this is that it's a Rubicon being crossed. The moment the English start to seriously question the continuance of the Union then it's finished. There's plenty of arguments in favour of the Union if you're Scottish, Welsh or Irish. But what do the English get out of it? Their wallets are raided and the resulting largesse showered upon people who haven't a good word for them. And their politicians are over-ruled by non-English without any corresponding rights given to English MPs.

The Union was created for military safety. We no longer fear having to fight militarily on two (or more) fronts, so what benefit are the English paying their Union subs for?

Posted by: David Wildgoose at January 27, 2006 04:17 PM

The 1997 devolution arrangements were a piece of shameless gerrymandering. A majority of the Scottish electorate recognise that it is undemocratic and unacceptable for their MPs to vote on English domestic matters. Their MPs, however, continue to exercise this power, while the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties continue to defend the indefensible. English resentment of Scotland's privileged constitutional status has not yet turned to general resentment of the Scots. Sooner or later, if the issue is not addressed, it will.

Posted by: James Matthews at January 27, 2006 04:43 PM

Not a lot of solutions here!

I wonder if it is helpful to relate the West Lothian Question to other issues such as the alleged over-representation of Scottish MPs at Westminster or the relative levels of public expenditure in Scotland and England. Both of the latter issues predate devolution by many years and could be resolved without any direct impact on the WLQ.

With regard to the WLQ itself, as a Scottish resident, I have no interest in having my MP vote one way or another on English legislation. The Scottish National Party MPs have adopted a policy of not voting on purely English legislation. It has never been tested but I suspect that the vast majority of Scots have no interest in English legislation - why should they?

The problem lies with the UK Government. If Scottish MPs were denied the ability to vote on English legislation, than the UK Government could find itself in the position where it had a working majority in dealing with reserved issues (social security, immigration, foreign affairs, defence, etc where Scottish MPs were allowed to vote) while being incapable of delivering a legislative programme on domestic issues (housing, transport, health, etc). Arguably, this would lead to a constitutional nonsense where no government could govern either the UK or England sensibly.

So what to do? One obvious answer is to establish an English Parliament with responsibilities similar to those of the Scottish Parliament, leaving the UK Parliament to deal only with reserved issues. But would the English accept such an arrangement, presumably involving an England Act and a referendum? Or would they consider that such an upheaval involved far outweighed the minor potential hassles of the current arrangements?

Another alternative would be to let Scotland become independent, thus removing Scottish MPs from Westminster altogether. But the Scots seem unlikely to want to go down this road in the near future. In these circumstance, would the English want to chuck us out of the Union against our wishes?

If neither of these options appeals, then perhaps you just need to learn to live with the current arrangements. But Scotland is - I am sure - happy to listen to alternative suggestions.

Posted by: Holyrood Watcher at January 27, 2006 04:52 PM

Your quote

"Yet, there is no clear answer bar self-interest and historical fixing for why Scottish MPs should vote on English matters but their English counterparts not be able to do the same, why Scottish voters - even after their representation went down from 72 MPs to 59 MPs at the 2005 general election - should be over-represented in the number of MPs."

Do you think that the English electorate will be bothered that Scotland is over-represented by 4.5 seats? There are constituencies in England that have a better representation than the Scottish average. Surely the majority of people will vote on the basis of what party they believe will be the best at running the country.

And anyway, it's very unlikely that the Conservatives would be able to win a majority of seats in England while at the same time Labour wins a majority in the UK, so the scenario you are so worried about seems hardly worth worrying about.

One last point, last election whatever you may wish to pretend to your readership, Labour won an overall majority of English seats. That's a fact.

Posted by: DM Andy at January 27, 2006 05:23 PM

"Scotland is happy to listen to alternative suggestions".
What England does is nothing to do with Scotland Holyrood, Watcher.
We certainly will not 'learn to live 'with the WLQ. An English Parliament with powers equal to those of the Scottish Parliament is a minimum requirement. I would go further and demand English independence.

Posted by: HomeRuleforEngland at January 27, 2006 05:27 PM

If it's a solution that you want then I have it: Ask the English how they wish to be governed.

The Scots had their Constitutional Convention and the Labour Government gave them a referendum on the basis of it.

We need an English Constitutional Convention followed by a refendum. My view is that the English will go for self-governance, with an English parliament and executive equal to that of Scotland's.

Following from that decision will be a federal UK of nations, or, if such a thing is unnacceptable to the Scots and Welsh, independence.

Until we have a referendum there should either be a bar on Scottish and Welsh MPs or a moratorium on all non-essential English legislation to ensure that English democracy isn't abused by the Scottish Labour Party.

Posted by: Gareth Young at January 27, 2006 08:27 PM

DM ANDY - "One last point, last election whatever you may wish to pretend to your readership, Labour won an overall majority of English seats. That's a fact."

The Labour Party also got less votes than the Tories in England, that's a fact.

Labour are scared of further constitutional reform because they know it will pull the gerrymandered rug from under their feet. Don't try and fudge the issue by claiming legitimacy for a system that is morally bankrupt. An English Parliament elected on PR (like the Scottish and Welsh legislatures) would see Labour wiped out, and you know it.

Don't let your party affiliations cloud your judgement.

Posted by: Gareth Young at January 27, 2006 08:31 PM

More people in England voted Tory than Labour, that's a fact, DM Andy, and Labour's gerrymandering is not something you should be proud of. How anybody can defend New Labour, I don't know. Our local psychiatric services are on the point of callapse here in Cambridgeshire, and the inequalities forced on the people of England by this non-representative government is a scandal. This is just as bad as the dark days of Thatcher, but this "Government" is far more deceitful. You know NOTHING DM Andy!! You are NOT a socialist - socialism is dead!

Posted by: Maria at January 27, 2006 10:22 PM

I know nothing Maria? Best shut your eyes to this as well.

Although there is slight effect where Labour constituencies contain less electors than Conservative and Liberal Democrat held constituencies, this effect, if rectified would account for a change of less than 10 seats in Labour's majority. This is not a gerrymander, just a natural effect of population shift from urban to suburban areas. And anyway, the next election will be held on revised boundaries.

Labour held constituencies also have on average 10% less turnout than Conservative and Liberal Democrat constituencies. This has the effect of making Labour appear over represented but that doesn't mean they are over represented.

By far the largest element of this alleged gerrymander is an effect of Duverger's Law. We do not have a true 3 party democracy in England, we have a patchwork of 2 party contests, ranging from Labour v Respect in Bethnal Green and Bow to Conservative v Lib Dem in most of non-urban Southern England. In every seat there is a pressure on the 3rd party to be squeezed and as there are more constituencies where Labour is in 3rd place than ones where Conservatives are in 3rd place, that means that Labour votes are more concentrated in constituencies where they have a chance of winning.

If you accuse Labour of gerrymandering when they haven't, then you run the risk of being the boy that cried wolf if they ever did.

Gareth, I am a card-carrying Labour Party member, but I don't believe that it's clouding my judgement.

An English Parliament on the AMS system that the Scots and Welsh have would lead to no party having an overall majority, with Labour and Conservatives very close to each other in terms of seats. On 2005 GE results, I think Labour would end up as the largest party, but only just. But obviously a election fought under AMS would have different results to one fought under FPTP so we're going into speculation here.

Maria, I'm not ignoring your comment about psychiatric services in Cambridgeshire, but I don't have anything useful to say to you on the subject. I just know that the NHS here in Somerset is pretty good.

Posted by: DM Andy at January 28, 2006 09:44 AM

By the way, I thought I would prove that the prospect of the Conservatives winning a majority of seats in England but Labour winning a majority in the UK is effectively impossible.

England contains 529 seats, so to gain a majority of English seats, a party needs to win 265.

The UK as a whole contains 646 seats, a winning party needs 324 seats.

In 2005, England elected 47 Lib Dems, 1 RESPECT and 1 Independent, assuming the same baseline, for the Conservatives to hold an English majority of one would lead to this result.

Conservatives 265 (+71)
Labour 215 (-71)
Lib Dems 47
Others 2

As Northern Ireland will elect 18 Others, that means that Labour would be 109 seats short of an overall majority. But there's only 99 seats in Scotland and Wales so that is not possible. I don't see the point in getting exercised about something that isn't going to happen.

Posted by: DM Andy at January 28, 2006 10:28 AM

The resentment is growing against this blatantly unjust situation, it's directed at the politicians, not the people of other nations, and it has to be resolved, with exactly the same that had been devolved to Scotland at the very least,
DM Andy consider these figures and you may choose to re think what you said...

Tories 8,103,000 votes 193 seats
Labour 8,046,000 votes 286 seats

Tories 369,000 votes 1 seat
Labour 907,000 votes 40 seats

Now tell me, and forget proportional representatione as it is so far removed, doe those figures in any way shape or form have any sense of democratic fairness?? the situation you talk of with Labour retaining control of the UK but not England is very real, and the warning signs are there for all in Westminster to see, but so far they have totally failed to respond to the clear and present danger, which is why Blair has tried to put up legal barriers to us all marching on Parliament again...
House Of Commons Research Paper 05/33

Posted by: English man Abroad at January 29, 2006 10:06 AM

"West Lothian" is a supeb name for this issue, summoning up as it does the gerundive mood of the verb "to loath" together with a sense of sunset.

What we should loath is, of course, the aggregation of futile powers in our central government. The patent truth is not only that the powers of our central government have increased, are increasing and ought to be diminished, but also that the use of these powers has been ineffective, shows no sugn of becoming reasonably effective and that central government ought to limit its ambitions to what it has a fair chance of achieving.

After 30 years as a Whitehall Civil Servant, I welcomed Scottish and Welsh devolution as a first timid step in the process of returning political and administrative discretion to the people in Cambridge, Somerset, the Lothians and elsewhere who are patently imperfect mangers of local services but at least are likely to manage such services to greater general satisfaction than Whitehall can hope for.

Devolution of power has been left in the same constitutional muddle as the powers of Scots and Welsh members of the House of Commons, the membership of the House of Lords and the powers of the Lord Chancellor.

The workable solution to the West Lothian question is to take all the relevant powers out of central government and to place their management and accountability as near to the parish pump as possible. The fact that our non-gerrymandered but peculiar electoral system sometimes unduly favours one party and sometimes another would then be much less important.

The "West" in West Lothian is, I hope, a ray from the sunset of over-centralised ineffectiveness.

Posted by: David Heigham at March 6, 2006 02:32 PM
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