If you watch just about any news bulletin at the moment, you’ll hear talk of the ‘West Lothian question’ or ‘English votes for English laws’.
So what exactly is the West Lothian question, and what is the best solution?
The West Lothian question was first raised in 1977 by the then Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell. The then Labour government was planning to hold devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales, but Dalyell had spotted a possible problem. In a post-devolution Scotland, in which Scotland would have its own parliament, English MPs would be unable to vote on matters devolved to Scotland, but Scottish MPs would be able to vote on similar matters for England. (In case you’re wondering, no devolution took place in the late 1970s, but the Blair government set up a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly in 1999.)
An ‘insoluble’ question?
In a parliamentary research paper published in 1995, a House of Commons researcher suggested that the West Lothian question’s importance lies in the perception that it is virtually “insoluble”. However, some have argued that it is neither unanswerable nor even a real problem. What’s clear is that more and more English people do want a solution.
The most extreme response is to ban all non-English MPs from voting on matters that relate solely to England. However, critics of this approach argue that doing so would undermine the entire premise on which Westminster is based.
In a speech the morning after the referendum, David Cameron said “the millions of voices in England must be heard”, while simultaneously challenging Labour to announce its stand on the issue. Labour has traditionally been opposed to the exclusion of Scottish MPs, and with those same MPs making up 41 of Labour’s seats in parliament, it will be interesting to see what line Labour decides to take in the 2015 election. Ukip leader Nigel Farage said that Scottish MPs should immediately give up their right to debate or vote on English issues in Westminster.
So what are the possible solutions?
Option 1: English votes for English laws
In this ‘in and out’ solution, non-English MPs will have votes in some matters but not in others. This option has certainly been a popular one, according to a poll conducted by the IPPR think tank, with 79% of English voters agreeing that Scottish MPs should be prevented from voting on England-only devolved matters.
The main problem with this option is that it could effectively create two governments that answer to the same chamber. So you could effectively have a Conservative government for the ‘England only’ issues and a Labour one for laws that would apply across the UK.
Then there’s the traditional view that all MPs are elected under equal rules to a national, sovereign parliament in Westminster. Any move to restrict the voting rights of some of those MPs arguably undermines Parliament’s sovereignty.
Option 2: An English parliament
We could have a separate English parliament for English matters. Then the English and UK governments would answer to separate parliaments. However, an English parliament would represent 85% of the UK’s population and would lead to a vastly imbalanced federal system which might annoy Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Given that the union has only just managed to survive the recent referendum, the last thing it needs is to provide Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties with more ammunition to undermine the UK. A separate parliament would also cost money and create yet more politicians.
Option 3: Fewer Scottish MPs
Not only would Scottish MPs have a reduced voice on English devolved laws, they would also have a reduced voice on non-devolved issues such as defence and national security. What’s more, reducing the number of Scottish MPs would not remove them totally from voting on England-only issues. Scottish MPs would still be able to vote on these issues; there would just be fewer of them.
Option 4: Do nothing
The Spectator writer Alex Massie, a pro-union Scot, stated that: “the best, if still imperfect – answer to the West Lothian question is simply to stop asking it. Ignoring it won’t make it go away, but leaving it alone causes less trouble than addressing it.” But, with the impending general election in May next year, the West Lothian question will, no doubt, feature prominently in the campaign manifestos from the main parties. Leaving the issue alone may only make it fester and become worse, particularly with 79% of English voters telling pollsters they want an ‘English votes for English laws’ outcome.
Cameron has assigned the Leader of the Commons, William Hague, with the momentous task of coming up with a ‘decisive answer’ to the West Lothian question. With Hague expressing his opinion as early as 1999 that “English MPs should have exclusive say over English laws”, it will be interesting to see exactly what sort of ‘decisive’ solution he comes up with.