Like many elegant ideas, David Cameron’s proposed solution to the West Lothian question could throw up some unintended consequences. For example...
The proposal will end the long-established equality and authority currently given to all MPs.
The devolved powers given to the Holyrood parliament are substantial, and will potentially rise if devolution-max is granted should Scottish voters reject independence. This would leave MPs from Scottish constituencies holding the same voting authority as their English colleagues only on reserved matters such as defence, foreign affairs and social security.
If Scottish MPs were excluded from involvement in everything but reserved powers, academics have suggested they would be reduced to one-day-week MPs. Even if they were involved in other matters, but only until the final stage of a Bill, this would still create a two-tier Commons: English MPs and involved, non-voting Scottish MPs.
The influence of Scottish MPs at Westminster will be reduced.
The Cameron plan creates a political barrier, a ceiling, beyond which Scottish MPs cannot operate on equal terms with their south-of-the-border colleagues. Scottish MPs could not technically hold many ministerial posts. A minister from a Scottish constituency could not be expected to pilot a key Bill, and then withdraw from voting at its final hurdle.
Regardless of its aim, the Cameron plan will increase Tory control.
Scottish constituencies currently send 59 MPs to Westminster. The Conservative Party has one MP – “not enough for a tennis doubles” is a well-worn jibe. Labour has 41 Scottish MPs. If this number had been excluded from key non-reserved Bills over the post-war period, Labour’s overall authority would have been diminished. So the Commons might become a Tory-dominated chamber, and might be seen by Scotland as an “English parliament”.
A prime minister who has only limited authority in Westminster is a constitutional nonsense. So we may have seen the last Scottish prime minister in Gordon Brown.
Technically it could be argued that if one of the main parties finds a potential superstar from a Scottish constituency, their first course of action should be to find them a safe seat – in England. This makes a mockery of the constitutional link between MPs and their constituents – and favours political pragmatism over basic democracy. What the new proposal signals to future Scottish MPs is that Westminster will not be the pinnacle of their careers. No 10 is not theirs to covet. Holyrood’s attractiveness for a new generation of Labour politicians is likely to increase.