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

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy