Who's afraid of the West Lothian question?

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The Independent Online
He is back. And so is his famous question. It was possible, listening to Tam Dalyell talking about the problems thrown up by the powers devolved to a Scottish parliament, to imagine yourself transported back to 1978. It sounded so familiar, hearing Dalyell warning like Cassandra that one day there would be a government that wouldn't tolerate him and his parliamentary neighbour Robin Cook being "able to vote on housing, education and health in West Bromwich, but not in West Lothian".

This time there is a difference: unlike the tottering minority government of 19 years ago, this one can ignore Dalyell. With a huge majority, a Scottish MP-free Tory party, and home rule referendums planned for what will still be its honeymoon period, why should it worry about the wrinkle of Scottish MPs at Westminster being able to vote on policies which only apply in England and Wales?

It is easy to understand why so many Scottish politicians are dismissive when their English counterparts bleat about the West Lothian question. English Tory politicians throw up their hands in horror at the idea of Scottish MPs voting on matters which only concern England without showing any signs of having recognised how long the reverse has been true. For 18 years an English Tory majority imposed its will, poll tax included, on a Labour-voting Scottish people without turning a hair. It was, after all, partly to remedy that injustice that the momentum for home rule developed. But building into a system the possibility that somewhere, far over the horizon, English and Welsh voters might have policies imposed on them by a majority of Scottish MPs is only desirable if you believe revenge is a suitable basis for constitutional reform - and don't mind the English nationalist tensions that such an outcome would generate.

There have been at least two answers to the Lothian question, both of them canvassed by the Lib Dems. The Government's line, so far, is that all the question exposes is a potential anomaly in the British constitution, that the constitution is full of anomalies, and anyway no one objected to Northern Ireland MPs voting on mainland issues. And that's, er, it.

The Lib Dems, by contrast, have proposed that the anomaly would be eased by reducing the present 72 Scottish MPs - who currently represent 55,000 voters on average - to a number proportionately closer to the English, who represent 68,000 on average. In the short term this has disadvantages for both Lib Dems - currently sitting for territorially huge, sparsely populated seats - and for Labour, with the risk of "warfare" in the remaining constituencies.

That fear may be exaggerated; won't the Scottish parliament itself open up just the kind of alternative career path for Labour politicians that would prevent that happening?

Less formally, the Lib Dems have floated the idea that Scottish MPs should exclude themselves from voting on issues which in Scotland are the province of the Scottish parliament. This, the so-called "In and Out" solution, is hardly a new idea, though it is a real answer. The Scotsman advocated it before the election - just a few days after it had been pointed out in The Independent that Blair's freedom to put it into practice, if he chose, would be much greater if he won a landslide victory. (Because with a big majority in England, he would not need the Scots to win votes.)

But its antecedents go much further back than that. Gladstone's 1893 Government of Ireland Bill originally proposed that Irish MPs should be excluded from matters "confined to Great Britain or some part thereof". And Section 66 of the 1978 Scotland Act, as a result of a Tory Lords' amendment carried against the Callaghan government's fierce opposition by just one vote, provided that if Scottish MPs had been decisive in a vote on issues which didn't concern Scotland, there should be a 14-day cooling-off period and a second vote, to allow reconsideration.

Taking a distinctly sniffy attitude to the idea of "In and Out", the Constitution Unit, in its report on devolution last year, approvingly quoted Enoch Powell's somewhat mystical remark, made in the 1978 debates on Scottish home rule, that "the nature of this House is that it is a body corporate. What concerns any part of us concerns us all. We are, in the best sense of the word, peers in every respect and sit on a basis of equality of responsibility and rights."

You don't hear constitutional reformers quoting Powell quite so readily on the threat a reformed and therefore legitimised Lords would pose to the ancient sovereignty of the Commons. The important point is that Powell, as he made perfectly clear at the time, was arguing that there were no solutions to the problems he saw in home rule. If his remark meant anything, it was that we shouldn't have a Scottish parliament.

As the Scottish academic Bill Miller has frequently pointed out, governments with convincing UK majorities have also had majorities in England. Indeed, only the 1964 government and the first one in 1974 haven't. That is sometimes used as an argument for saying the West Lothian question doesn't matter because it would so infrequently make a difference in practice. But if the principle is wrong, it is wrong whatever the parliamentary arithmetic. In fact the Miller figures simply show that in practice a Labour government has little to fear from excluding Scottish MPs from solely English and Welsh matters.

It is worth remembering that the Scottish referendum, good as the auspices are, isn't yet won. A powerful argument for the parliament, that a Labour Scotland doesn't want to be controlled by a politically alien administration, is inevitably reduced when the UK majority is the same as Scotland's. At least one Scottish Labour backbencher (without anti-devolutionist form) was struck, during the election campaign, by how divided his constituents seemed to be on the issue.

At the moment the Scottish Tories couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag; but the threat that some future Tory government might arbitrarily and brutally reduce Scottish representation could yet be used to deter some support in the referendum. It would be well for the Government, as the Lib Dems have done, to think creatively about the answers to Dalyell's tiresome, repetitive but inescapable question.