Lord 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.