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

Share

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.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We have an exciting role f...

KS2 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We have a key stage 2 cla...

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Does a year 6 class of 16 ...

Subject Leader of ICT & Computing

£21588 - £36756 per annum + negotiable: Randstad Education Chelmsford: ICT/Com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Only a game? Far from it

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi speaking at the Grand Mosque in Mosul  

The al-Baghdadi doctrine: leading British Muslims offer their response

Independent Voices
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil