The West London questionPosted: September 21, 2014
The West Lothian question is at the centre of the politics of the UK in the wake of David Cameron’s response to the No vote in the Scottish referendum.
The prime minister surprised his opponents by linking a demand for ‘English votes for English laws’ to the fulfilment of the three-party ‘vow’ to devolve more power to the Scots if they rejected independence.
Under pressure from English Conservatives and UKIP, Cameron said:
‘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.’
‘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.’
It is of course complete coincidence that this would benefit the Conservatives (one current MP in Scotland and eight in Wales) at the expense of Labour (40 in Scotland and 26 in Wales). Taken literally, it also threatens the timetable for ‘the vow’ and Alex Salmond is already claiming that No voters were tricked. Belatedly even Downing Street seems to have realised that this looked like Cameron, rather than Scottish unionists, was trying to get ‘the best of both worlds’. Two and a half days after the original statement it has issued a clarification that that new powers for Scotland are not linked to English votes for English laws
The West Lothian question is a famous constitutional conundrum for a reason and it dates back to well before Tam Dalyell asked it in the 1970s. Almost 100 years before that, even Gladstone could not solve the problem of how to treat Irish MPs at Westminster in the wake of Home Rule. Anticipating present day complaints about the creation of two different classes of MP, he said that ‘it passed the wit of man to frame any distinct, thorough-going, universal severance between the one class of subject and the other’.
Various answers have been put forward, from a reduction in non-English MPs to an English parliament to regional devolution to changes in Commons procedures. None of them are perfect and all of them raise their own problems. For more detail see this 2012 report on the West Lothian question from the IPPR. For more on changes in the Commons, see proposals in the report of the McKay Commission on the consequences of devolution that has been gathering dust since its publication in March 2013. Calls for devolution within England continue to gather momentum, from major regional newspapers to leaders of northern cities at the Labour conference.
What Cameron (and Chris Grayling in a piece for the Sunday Telegraph) seem to have in mind is that when it comes to purely English issues only English MPs will be allowed to vote. Grayling says that:
‘We cannot have a situation where more and more decisions about Scotland are being taken in Scotland, and yet Scottish MPs come to Westminster and vote on English-only issues, shaping the destiny of health, education, justice, environment and probably taxation, too, in England, potentially against the wishes of most English representatives.’
He goes on:
‘In Scotland justice is wholly devolved. As Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor, I have virtually no role there. But Scottish MPs today can still vote on my proposals to toughen the justice system in England and Wales.’
However, might things just be a bit more complicated than he imagines? To take just one example, Scotland kept its own legal system when it became part of the union in 1707. So hasn’t what he describes always been the case?
It also assumes that the other UK nations will have the same level of devolution. Take housing benefit, for example, which is seen as fit for devolution to Scotland (the bedroom tax was a huge issue in the referendum). It is already devolved to Northern Ireland but under an expectation that it follows England’s example (political deadlock at Stormont effectively means that the government is picking up the bill for the bedroom tax and other welfare reforms). In Wales, though, the Silk Commission specifically rejected devolution of housing benefit on the grounds that it would undermine the UK’s ‘social union’.
And who decides what is an ‘English’ issue? Many Bills that apply primarily to England contain elements that apply elsewhere (especially in Wales). Many ‘English’ Bills have knock-on effects for other UK nations because England is so much larger: the fate of the NHS was a major issue in the referendum despite the fact that health is devolved because of fears that Scotland cannot resist the accelerating trend to privatisation south of the border.
What will the implications be for future governments if non-English MPs have no say over whole swathes of domestic policy (more of which are set to be devolved)? What happens if different parties have majorities in the UK and in England? Could a future Lloyd George or Gordon Brown become UK prime minister or Nye Bevan or Alistair Darling a UK cabinet minister if they are excluded from votes affecting 85 per cent of the electorate? Or even someone like Malcolm Rifkind, except by moving to an English constituency? If they can’t, the devolved nations would only be free to act within budgets set by UK governments they cannot join.
However, the real problem with Cameron’s proposal is that it would concentrate power even more firmly in Westminster and Whitehall than before. Anyone who visited Scotland during the referendum campaign will have heard this complaint over and over again and it was about far more than just getting a government dominated by a party with one Scottish MP.
Lord Ashcroft commissioned an opinion poll in the wake of the referendum on how Scotland voted and why. He concludes that:
‘By far the biggest single driver for Yes voters was “disaffection with Westminster politics”. Accordingly, “the principle that all decisions about Scotland should be taken in Scotland” was the most powerful overarching reason for a Yes vote, ahead of the idea that “Scotland’s future looked brighter as an independent country” or that “independence would mean no more Conservative governments”. The Yes campaign’s recent focus on the NHS also appears to have had an impact, with more than half (54%) of Yes voters saying this was one of the most important factors in their decision.’
The same disenchantment with Westminster and Whitehall and the economic power of London can be found in Wales and the further away from the capital you go in England. It’s reflected in the geographical polarisation of British politics between a Labour north and Conservative south. OK, these are crude generalisations, but they are also why we had devolution to Scotland and Wales in the first place.
English votes for English laws may sound like a reasonable proposition to Cameron, Grayling and Nigel Farage but the danger is that it will intensify the very feelings that fuelled the biggest threat to the union in 300 years.
To the rest of the country, it will look like the further concentration of power in a small part of the capital that contains Westminster, Whitehall and the homes of the politicians and the hedge fund bosses and Russian oligarchs who finance them. As I’ve blogged before, why do we choose to concentrate so much political and economic power in one place?
With due respect to the citizens of Linlithgow and Livingston, the really important question for the future of the UK is not about West Lothian at all: it is the West London question.