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Another West Lothian question in the offing

The Government's proposed solution is not as simple as it might appear. Both the question and the answers probe complex issues of sovereignty and union

The West Lothian question has bedevilled our political system since the time of Gladstone.

Back then, it was about Home Rule in Ireland – which left Irish MPs in Westminster voting on policies that affected only England, Scotland and Wales. But in the 1970s, it took on a sharper edge – and gained its name – thanks to Tam Dalyell’s opposition to Scottish devolution on the grounds that he would then be able to vote on matters touching Blackburn in Lancashire but not Blackburn in his West Lothian constituency.

Three-plus decades on, with the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies up and running, Mr Dalyell’s concerns are more pertinent than ever. And the Government’s proposed fix – as The Independent reports today – is a new “fourth reading” for Bills affecting England only, in which Scottish and Welsh MPs would not be involved. Thus, while all members could participate in the formation of all policy, on England-only matters, English MPs would have the final say.

A simple solution, it would seem – if the challenge of teasing out England-only policies does not prove insurmountable. But there is a reason that the problem has taken so long to crack. Just as the question itself probes complex issues of sovereignty, accountability and union; so, too, does any answer.

The most immediate ramifications concern the equilibrium between the political parties. Labour has 191 English MPs, plus another 41 from Scotland and 26 from Wales. By contrast, the Conservatives hold 297 English seats, eight Welsh and only one Scottish. Short of an impossible landslide in 2015, then, Labour will struggle to form a majority without its members from north of the border. That means the party could govern only in coalition, most likely with the Liberal Democrats; and that means a fundamental shift in Britain’s political dynamics.

For Ed Miliband, grappling with a crisis over the influence of the unions, the proposed changes are another blow. Indeed, it is no surprise that the West Lothian question took a back seat while devolution went ahead, under Tony Blair, and in the Labour-governed years that followed. 

But concerns about a swing to the right do not, alone, militate against the plans. With opinion polls routinely showing a hefty majority of English voters in agreement with the proposition that non-English MPs should be barred from voting on England-only issues, the matter cannot simply be ignored. Furthermore, if a shake-up of the balance of power is the result of a system that is more representative, with closer links between governing and governed, then the change is difficult to gainsay. That said, if the justification is one of democratic legitimacy, it should surely be accompanied by reform of our skewed voting system and a fresh look at constituency boundaries.

The implications of English-only fourth readings are not restricted to day-to-day politics, however. By creating two different classes of MP for the first time – those who can engage in all the business of the House and those who cannot – the plan also raises profound constitutional issues and, in its most extreme interpretation, even undermines Westminster’s status as the United Kingdom Parliament.

There is another, less constitutionally troublesome course. After all, devolution always logically implied the creation of a separate English Assembly to parallel those in Edinburgh and Cardiff. But so seismic an upheaval was never on the table. Nor would it be any more feasible now. In the absence of much else, then, procedural tweaks are the best available option. They are no final answer, though. In solving one constitutional conundrum, they merely raise another in its place.