The West Lothian Question
More foot dragging by the Government – By Ian Campbell
The Scottish press, in the shape of The Scotsman and the Herald, both reported today (21 December) that, ‘after months of delay the UK Government last night announced it was finally setting up a commission to consider the so-called West Lothian Question (WLQ), with work starting in February’. Months? This question was raised as long ago as 1977!
The ‘English’ press has been slow to pick up this inflammatory information but it was reported on 22 December (Daily Telegaph) but only in the context of the possible break-up of the UK.
In response to a question in the House, Mr Harper, MP for the Forest of Dean, and who is Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Cabinet Office with ministerial responsibility for political and constitutional reform, said that work had in fact been going on since the government’s last announcement on the issue in September. He had been in consultation with House authorities, that is the Speaker and other parties, on how the commission could best address the relevant issues. He said the commission would report by the end of the next parliamentary session, in the spring of 2013. However, it is still not known who will chair it and we suspect it will not be in any hurry to bring out its recommendations. Any change in the present position would be opposed by the Labour Party and possibly by the Liberal Democrat as well, as they seem to be keener on reform of the House of Lords than address the democratic deficit in England.
The commission is seen as a ‘compromise’ in the search for an answer to the West Lothian Question, famously put by the former Labour MP, Tam Dalyell, in 1977. If Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all had devolved assemblies, he asked, what would the English think of having 119 (as it then was) MPs from those countries able to exercise a decisive influence over legislation that applied to England only? After his explanation, Ulster Unionist MP Enoch Powell replied: “Let us call it the West Lothian question”.Today, it is generally regarded as asking why Scottish MPs should be able to vote on laws affecting England when their English counterparts cannot vote on laws affecting Scotland. The question really is, why on earth should anyone other than English MPs vote on English laws?
The BBC’s Tim Reid suggested last September that the Commission might be given a wide-ranging remit in the hope of answering all of the questions surrounding the issue. We are doubtful about that and the make-up, exact remit and timetable of the commission remains to be decided. Announcing its formation, the government said that the commission should be comprised of [sic] a small group of independent, non-partisan experts with constitutional, legal and parliamentary expertise. Some had suggested in the past that an English Grand Committee should be set up to consider English-only bills, while another suggestion was that MPs would not be allowed to vote on bills that do not relate to them in the House of Commons. A fudge, unsurprisingly, was offered by Ken Clarke in which MPs could vote on some clauses but not change them.
Following devolution in 1998 to Scotland and Wales, the number of MPs from those countries was reduced (in the case of Scotland from 72 to 59). Brian Taylor, for BBC Scotland, described England’s position as, in raw terms, not perceived to be any worse as a consequence of devolution because the concomitant cut in Scottish MPs at Westminster brought a relative strengthening of England’s position. While it did not answer the West Lothian Question, “it may at the very least look like an acknowledgement of understandable English concerns”. There was however no urgency about these concerns.
The proposed commission was part of the Coalition agreement back in 2010. According to the BBC’s Tim Reid, writing in September, “lots of MPs had hoped the matter would have been dealt with before now.” What happened in September to stir things up was that MP Harriett Baldwin’s Private Members’ Bill, which attempted to address the issue, had reached a crucial stage in the parliamentary process. She proposed a Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill
, providing that all bills should have a clear indication on the front about which areas of the UK they affected and if they did not cover Scotland, then Scottish MPs should not vote on them. Mark Harper had asked her to withdraw her legislation, but she refused and took her Bill to the House of Commons for its third reading. In the end, her Private Members’ Bill was rejected by 40 votes to 24, giving the government a majority of 16. It was quite clear from the list of those voting that the Government had rounded up some of those on its payroll to kill Harriet Baldwin’s Bill.
Without her Bill, the Government would still be dragging its feet. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, under whom Mark Harper studied at Oxford, told the BBC Westminster Hour on 18 December that the only satisfactory answer to the WLQ was an English Parliament but that was ‘unrealistic’. He believed that the WLQ is the price that the English had to pay for the Union. Eleanor Laing, MP for Epping Forest, speaking on the same programme repeated Tam Dalyell’s point that, even with reduced numbers, Scottish MPs could still materially change English legislation and that many of her constituents rightly resented this. No doubt Professor Bogdanor will be selected as one of those ‘independent, non-partisan experts with constitutional, legal and parliamentary expertise’ who will be invited to sit on the Commission.
The Government is dragging its feet because, like the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, it believes that the best answer to the WLQ is not to ask it. It does not like any of the possible answers. It fears that if the Scots cannot vote on English legislation they will see no point in remaining within the Union. There is no evidence that this would be the case. The Scots will have another referendum before 2014 when, on the surveys polled so far, they are likely to support a further extension of devolution to give Scotland almost complete domestic autonomy. The Government knows that it must have its answer to the WLQ by then or it may be the English who wonder why they bother with the Union.
Instead of this foot-dragging and fudging, with a shadowy commission whose remit is not clear, what the Government needs to do is to call a full Constitutional Convention, with nothing barred, to re-negotiate the Union. In the 21st century, it is no use clinging onto an English ‘empire’ in the British Isles and letting it go bit by bit. Better for all the British nations to enter into an equal agreement, whereby each would have its own Parliament with full domestic autonomy coming together in a British Parliament to decide on defence, foreign affairs and UK taxation. This would give new meaning to the Unionist cry, “We are stronger together”.