The West Lothian Question: the answer is not the solution

44044Lord Irvine of Lairg, when Lord Chancellor, said that the best way to deal with the West Lothian question (named after Tam Dalyell’s constituency, but actually dating from home rule debates in the 19th Century) was not to ask it.  He had a point.  The only logical answers are to undo devolution or to move to a federal system.  The former is not politically feasible and the latter would create a totally asymmetrical federation.  Neither really provides a solution.

One possible way to deal with the problem, very much in the news, is English votes for English laws (EVEL).  This is feasible in terms of process (it is something we addressed in the Commission to Strengthen Parliament), though there are problems in terms of determining what measures to put through that process.  Another, less discussed, is not so neat in some respects, but once implemented is somewhat more robust (though the two are not mutually exclusive) – and that is to reduce the number of MPs returned from Scotland to the House of Commons.  This is in line with precedent.  When Northern Ireland had its own Parliament at Stormont, the number of MPs returned from Northern Ireland was less than its population justified.  Stormont was suspended in 1972 and then abolished.  Because the province no longer had a Parliament, the Labour Government of James Callaghan accepted that the number of MPs returned from Northern Ireland should therefore be increased and legislated accordingly.

The number of MPs returned from Scotland was reduced following devolution, but that was to bring the electoral quota in Scotland in line with England.  Scotland had acquired over time more seats than its population warranted, but that was not a conscious act to compensate for the absence of its own legislature.  Bringing the electoral quota into line with England was a change that arguably should have been made anyway, regardless of devolution.  Scotland is now on a par with England, but it has its own parliament and is set to see an increase in its powers.  There is thus a clear case for reducing the number of MPs .  There is also a practical argument for doing so.  MPs representing Scottish seats no longer shoulder the same constituency burdens as MPs in the rest of the UK, especially England.

Reducing the number would not solve the West Lothian question, but it would make it less problematic.  There would not be two tiers of MPs (though in practice there are various tiers of MPs) and hence no problems over process.  When Northern Ireland had the Stormont Parliament, MPs from Northern Ireland were the same as other MPs.  The problem that MPs from Scotland could tip the balance in some votes would remain, but that was the case with Northern Ireland MPs and was raised as an issue in the 1964-66 Parliament, the complaints coming from the Labour benches and the Conservatives arguing that the votes of Northern Irish Members were the same as those of any other Members.

As I say, it is not the neatest of solutions, but it is a practical one for which there is a precedent.  This and EVEL are not mutually exclusive, but this may be something on which progress could be made and, indeed, as in 1977-78 with representation from Northern Ireland, implemented quickly.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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24 Responses to The West Lothian Question: the answer is not the solution

  1. Lord Norton,
    I feel that the way forward may be marked by an English national strain of politics that as an open position and policy did not amount to much in the past. Therefore it is perhaps more important than before to answer the question. I think you have been starting that process as described in your post.

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  3. Jonathan says:

    Those advocating an English parliament or EVEL should read the McKay report, which explains the problems with that:

    I don’t see why a federation has to be asymmetrical. As someone who’s lived in various parts of England, I can tell you that many parts of England feel unrepresented by the Westminster government, just as those in Scotland or Wales might. I think the referendum showed that devolution is more about governance and localism than national identity. Therefore I don’t see why English regions shouldn’t have assemblies with similar powers to the Welsh Assembly, for a start. John Prescott’s proposals were rejected because they only offered glorified county councils with few extra powers. Also, the regions need to be carefully considered to fit in with the economies and needs of different parts of the country, as well as people’s local loyalties, rather than based on arbitrary boundaries from past decades, which in turn were based on many now-defunct counties.

    London is too big relative to other cities, too powerful and too wealthy. Its economy is out of step with the rest of the UK. Just look at how ridiculous house prices are in the capital. The first step should be more autonomy for London, which after all has a population at least as large as Wales and Scotland combined.

    Regional government in England would also help to secure the Union, as devolution in Wales and Scotland would no longer seem like a special case of countries that will inevitably become independent eventually, but rather as the two trail-blazing regions that showed regional government can be a success.

  4. Dave H says:

    I think we should move towards English-only voting on English matters. The Scots are fair-minded, I don’t think they’d object to the principle that where something is devolved to Scotland, their MPs should be excluded from voting on the English equivalent.

    Of course, we do get the interesting situation, which is what I assume concerns Ed Miliband, where a sitting government has an overall majority for UK matters but losing Scottish MPs on a vote means the government cannot command a majority for English legislation, but that would just make politics a bit more interesting.

    Of greater concern is how that would be applied to voting in the Lords – does this move towards EVEL finally push the government into Lords reform where the chamber is elected rather than appointed? Otherwise, how does the Lords decide who gets to vote? Most peers have a place name associated with the title, but that might just mean all future peers choose an English place name so as not to be excluded from the vote.

    • Peter Smith says:

      Indeed on the question of the Scots being fair minded, the SNP already don’t vote at Westminster on matters that concern only England.
      Labour have pushed through using their Scottish MPs matter that only concern England Founation Hospitals & University Tuition Fees being two examples.

  5. Dean B says:

    I would welcome Lord Norton’s views on the consequences of having effectively an English parliament (EVEL) without a corresponding English executive? Are there precedents? Do they work? Dave H’s point – that a UK government might not be able to pass English legislation – seems to me an almost insurmountable obstacle. He says it would make politics a bit more interesting, but we could be talking about a government not being able to get major areas of its budget through parliament. The opposition would not be able to realistically table an alternative budget without the machinery of the civil service, and there would be essentially deadlock. Surely the markets and big business would react to that situation with of horror? Could we see government shutdowns like the US?
    I just don’t see how the parliament can work without a corresponding executive – that to me was always the point of the West Lothian question.

  6. Croft says:

    “and that is to reduce the number of MPs returned from Scotland to the House of Commons. This is in line with precedent….Reducing the number would not solve the West Lothian question, but it would make it less problematic. ”

    Perhaps you have some figures but from memory those I had heard mentioned seemed too small for that to be the case except in the smallest possible majorities.

  7. Dean B says:

    Regarding Jonathon’s point about the failure of John Prescott’s regional assembly proposals, I did hear him on The Sunday Politics (John Prescott, not Jonathon) claiming that they were rejected by the electorate because they had insufficient power. He wasn’t pressed for evidence of that, and unless I see some I don’t believe it. What I kept hearing during that referendum campaign was that people didn’t want an extra layer of bureaucracy, it would be too expensive, and the calibre of the politicians would be too low. I never once heard anyone say they wanted more powers at regional level.
    By the end of their lifetime, Regional Development Agencies had taken on a wide range of responsibilities, had huge budgets, and can be considered to be quasi-regional governments (just without the democracy). The evidence of their success I would suggest was mixed. The regions were fairly arbitrary, and it soon became clear that tensions within regions could create almost as much frustration as between the region and Westminster. (As an example, Sheffield tax payers were forced to subsidise, via the Regional Development Agency, a new arena in Leeds, on the basis that it would bring events (and therefore jobs) to the region. Sheffield argued, rightly I think, that the majority of events that went to Leeds would be ones that would otherwise have gone to Sheffield Arena, which Sheffield council tax payers paid for themselves).

    • Dean B says:

      Apologies for mis-spelling Jonathan.

    • Jonathan says:

      People’s views on regional government may be different now that devolution is well established in the nations, and post the independence referendum. Given the choice between the status quo and a regional assembly, people may vote “no”. But if it’s between an English Parliament or a regional assembly, both representing an extra level of bureaucracy and politicians, the result may be different.

      Which is worse, subsidising facilities in a neighbouring city, or never having the resources to build anything anywhere other than London?

      The regional assemblies were all about planning. They weren’t legislatures. What I’m proposing is the powers to scrap tuition fees or makes changes to the school system or the NHS, as the Welsh Assembly has now.

      • Dean B says:

        People’s views may indeed be different now – I was just countering the argument that the referendum was lost because people felt the proposed regional assemblies would have too little power. I don’t see any evidence for that.
        With regards to “Which is worse, subsidising facilities in a neighbouring city, or never having the resources to build anything anywhere other than London?”, the resources were provided to the RDAs under Labour from both Westminster and the EU without there being regional governments in place, so clearly there is no requirement for that level of bureaucracy in order to have the funds – the two issues are quite separate.
        I am not strongly against regional government, I just think that no persuasive argument has yet been made.

  8. Mark Shephard says:

    I agree with Jonathan. A federal system does not have to be ‘asymmetrical’. We could have @equal regional units if England were subdivided. No doubt we shall muddle through for years and be surprised by all the turmoil created until we end up with a system like Germany’s – but in our case 12 regions already demarcated by the EP regions.

    • Croft says:

      Germany has far more natural regions and far more balanced regions in economic and population terms. I’m not sure you can apply one to the other

  9. Mark Shephard says:

    Either that or wait too long and mess about with partial solutions that are not solutions and that then prompt independence in Scotland.

  10. tizres says:

    The West Lothian question wasn’t the engaging problem it is today, and it’s not down to the referendum as an event but because the One Nation Labour party elite failed, in turn, both Scottish and English voters. Quite a trick.

    I’m not at all sure whether we need to change any part of the constitution or House of Commons in order to accommodate nationalism. Can we not at least wait until the full terms of devo-max become a hot potato in the Scottish Parliament?

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  12. abesto says:

    The proposal to reduce the number of Scottish MPs fails to look at the functions of Westminster, and introduces a few red herrings.

    All advocates of the union, whether DevoMax supporters or opponents of any devolution, agree that a UK Parliament at Westminster should retain responsibility for at least some core issues: defence, foreign affairs. Unionists disagree on how many other issues should be reserved to Westminster, but they agree on that core.

    Consider that most extreme situation of DevoMax: Scotland has full fiscal autonomy, and controls everything within its territory other than defence and foreign affairs. Those issues remain at Westminster, where the equitable solution is for voters to be equally represented in these matters wherever they live. Reducing the number of Scottish MPs below parity with England disenfranchises Scottish voters on defence and foreign affairs, and the inequity of that under-representation would propel support for Scottish independence.

    The greater the number of powers reserved to Westminster, the greater the inequity of asymmetric representation. The precedent of Northern Ireland is no guide, because is political debate was very different … but it would be deeply inflammatory to tell Scots that the price of devolution was for them to have below-parity representation on the fate of the nuclear weapons which are controversially based in Scotland, or on the UK’s relationship with the EU (Scotland is more pro-EU that England).

    The simple solution to inequity at Westminster is a federal one: equal devolution for all four nations of the UK. It would indeed be an symmetric federation (unless England agreed to be sub-divided), but it is the only solution which achieves equity at Westminster.

    Vernon Bogdanor is right: “as long as England rejects federalism, there can be no tidy, symmetrical solution. Asymmetry is the price England pays to keep Scotland within the union”

    • Croft says:

      VB is not – UK federalism is about as unloved a concept for the public as regional assemblies or PR. Its a pet dream from the ivory towers.

      • abesto says:

        The unacceptability of federalism to the English public leaves two alternatives: asymmetry or EVEL.

        The English Conservatives no longer accept asymmetry (aka the “West Lothian question”), and English/Scottish/Welsh Labour won’t accept EVEL.

        The result is that there is no agreed constitutional framework for a continued union.

  13. Lord Norton says:

    Croft rather succinctly encapsulates the point I was going to make at somewhat greater length. There is no political appetite for federalism. Regional government runs into massive practical problems. In some cases, there is no sense of regional identity. (Where, for instance, does Oxford fit?) Even where one could argue there is a sense of identity, that does not necessarily translate into a form of government that will necessarily enjoy popular support. Take Yorkshire for example: I suspect the people of North Yorkshire would soon start taking umbrage at what they would see as decisions being dominated by Leeds and Sheffield. (Dean B makes some persuasive observations that add weight to this view.) Federalism and regional government are the neat answers constitutionally, but not acceptable at the political level and the former in particular would require a major constitutional debate. My proposal, as is clear from what I write, is not a precise answer to the West Lothian question, but it is the more practical and the one that could fit within our existing constitutional arrangements. There is a precedent. Northern Ireland is smaller than Scotland, but my point holds. The objection of abesto does not really hold, as England would dominate in a federal Parliament and get its way. Federalism would indeed provide equity at Westminster, but such neatness is not going to win out over the political objections.

    Vernon Bogdanor is correct at least in his point that ‘asymmetry is the price England pays to keep Scotland within the union’, but with more powers being devolved, there is a case for some modest change to the form of representation at Westminster.

    • abesto says:

      The test of any such arrangement is whether it is politically acceptable to both sides — not necessarily as their first choice, but as something they can live with.

      Northern Ireland does indeed provide a technical precedent, but it is little use as a political precedent. The issues and priorities of Northern Irish politics have always been radically different to those of Scotland. It is a great mistake to assume that Scots would be as willing as the Stormont-era Ulster Unionist Party to settle for under-representation in the UK Parliament.

  14. Rich S says:

    A late arrival into this debate, sorry. I’ll start by celebrating the result of the Scottish referendum. Not the No vote, but fact that it has now been proven, despite what nay-sayers on the left and right have been telling us for decades if not centuries, that nothing engages the public like big constitutional questions. Far from being a distraction from “real issues”, big, comprehensive questions (as opposed to piecemeal ones on the facade of NE devolution or one unimpressive electoral system versus another) are very real to many people.

    As I’m sure Philip knows, I’ve long standing reservations about EVEL due to the possibility of a general election producing a government with a majority in the Commons that disappears when voting on English-only issues. With the NHS and education being England-only issues, it may leave a future government in a perpetual state of crisis and unable to enact their manifesto commitments on key issues of public policy. Hardly a solution that should be attractive to constitutional conservatives. Plus, I would envisage significant problems in extrapolating English-only issues where from those with impacts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland when UK taxes are centrally collected and (unfairly, from our perspective in Wales) distributed to the peripheral nations as if the nations were ordinary Departments of State. Every pound spent in England has an effect on public spending elsewhere. I concede that reducing the number of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs certainly reduces the likelihood of this scenario happening, but I also remember a decade ago people arguing that an SNP majority at Holyrood was only a “theoretical” possibility not to be taken seriously.

    Philip argues that political objections mean that federalism in all it’s neatness won’t win out over the political objections. I say, at least give the public the chance to have the debate and come to an understanding of what true federalism means in practice. (As an aside, the world is full of “unbalanced” federal arrangements, such as that which gives Rhode Island the same number of senators as Texas).

    The British were once described as the most constitutionally illiterate people in Europe (Siedentop, 2001). Maybe it’s time for us to learn from the Scottish referendum experience and give ourselves a couple of years and a common forum to debate as a body of citizens where we see our constitutional future; Carwyn Jones’ “Constitutional Convention” followed by a proposal for a written constitution, an extended period of public debate and finally decided upon by a UK-wide referendum.

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