John Rentoul: Public spending run mad or right-wing propaganda?

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The West Lothian Question is like something out of 1066 And All That. It is a very, very difficult question that was first asked by Tam Dalyell, before he began to ask difficult questions about the sinking of the Belgrano. It was such a clever question that it scuppered the Callaghan government's attempt to give Scotland its own devolved government. Even after Labour succeeded in setting up a Scottish parliament in 1999, the Conservatives continued to think it was such a clever question that it would, if they went on asking it, eventually unravel the policy.

The trouble is, no one can remember what the West Lothian Question is. You have to look it up on Wikipedia and then five minutes later, you have forgotten it again. Nobody genuinely thinks it matters very much if some MPs can or cannot vote on measures that affect different parts of the country. Recently, however, some clever people have changed the question. Some journalists on the Daily Mail and some Conservative MPs have started to ask about money.

So it is not called the West Lothian Question any more. It is called the Altrincham and Sale, West, Question. It was asked by Graham Brady, the Tory MP for that constituency, in the House of Commons on Wednesday. It went like this: "Why should my constituents pay more tax so that the Prime Minister's constituents pay no prescription charges?"

It is a stupid question, really, although it turns out to be quite clever in a different way. It is a question that English voters think they understand and do not like. It is a question that has been asked repeatedly by the Daily Mail in recent months, not least because some of its staff think it is a way of embarrassing Gordon Brown. This is odd, because Paul Dacre, the editor, and the Prime Minister are such good friends that Dacre has just been appointed by Mr Brown to review the official secrets rules.

What is so clever about the new question is that it implies that every time Scottish voters appear to gain something, the English taxpayer loses. So when the Scottish National Party abolishes prescription charges in Scotland, Tories and the Tory press conspire to pretend that this is an extra charge on the English.

The truth is, as Brown tried to tell the House of Commons this week, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament make decisions within their own budgets. "No more money goes to Scotland or Wales as a result of their decisions on prescriptions," he said. Or tuition fees, or "free" personal care, or bus passes. If the Scottish parliament abolishes charges, it has to find the money from somewhere else in its budget.

True, public spending is higher in Scotland than in England, but this is not a decision taken by the SNP or the Labour-Lib-Dem coalition that governed Edinburgh before. It was a decision taken by Joel Barnett, Labour chief secretary to the Treasury in the 1970s and maintained by the Tories throughout their 13 years in power.

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for the Independent on Sunday