Leading Article: Tartan terrors of Mr Blair

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The Independent Online
Should Tony Blair come to power and things go pear-shaped, taxes might rise, hospitals might close and squeegee merchants might stand poised and threatening at every urban road junction, but he and new Labour would never renege on their promise to set up a Scottish parliament. That there should be devolution for Scotland is as cast-iron a commitment as a political party has ever made.

But, as we reported yesterday, Labour is still wrestling with the ancient bugbear of allowing limited home rule in Scotland - the fabled West Lothian question. Asked most loudly in the late Seventies by the Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, the question is this: how can it be right for Scots MPs in Westminster to be allowed to exercise their votes and voices on matters affecting the lives of non-Scots, when English MPs may not do so over Scottish concerns?

One possibility, discussed by the Kilbrandon Commission back in 1973, was not to have Scots MPs at all, leaving Westminster as an English, Welsh (and Northern Irish) parliament. But this would either deprive the Scots of a voice on defence and foreign policy, or would be tantamount to full independence. Another answer, posed by the Callaghan government in its ill-fated Scotland Act of 1978, was to have a two-week cooling- off period on any vote primarily affecting England and Wales, in which the votes of Scots MPs had been decisive. It is hard to imagine such a recipe for confusion finding favour now.

That was why Labour turned to regional assemblies for England. If the English were to have their own little parliaments, exercising local power, then all would be in balance. Londoners, Scots, the Welsh, West Country folk etc - all would enjoy similar autonomy, while sending MPs to the House to decide national policy. QED.

Except, as Labour finally admitted to itself last year, the English do not actually want a new tier of regional government. If anything, they fancy rather less government altogether.

Return to square one, then. This explains why Mr Blair is planning a new commission to think up some good answers to the West Lothian question in time for the next election. What might it come up with?

One recommendation it could make is simply to stop asking the question. The (unwritten) British constitution is full of anomalies, including the proposed status of Northern Ireland, this argument runs. And there is a great deal to be said for it. Despite all that has been said and written on the subject, it is impossible to detect any backlash against the campaign for Scottish autonomy in the rest of Britain. The chances are that the passage of legislation to allow a Scottish parliament would attract little active resistance in the fens of East Anglia or the back streets of Manchester.

No - any trouble will come later, when unpopular measures for England and Wales are passed with the support of Scots MPs. Especially since it would then be discovered that the Scots have roughly one MP for every 70,000 people, while the rest of the country has only one for every 91,000. That is why Labour is now under such pressure to countenance the reduction of the number of Scots members from 72.

Labour's problem is obvious. It holds the vast majority of Scottish seats - so a reduction would make Labour governments less sustainable. Unless. Unless Mr Blair's party also endorses the idea of ruling in co-operation with the Liberal Democrats and accepting some form of electoral reform. Which, coincidentally, is what Peter Mandelson says he was wrongly quoted as advocating before Christmas. And - as we all know - a Mandelson misquote one week has a habit of becoming Labour policy the next.