Back to the drawing board: a unionist answer to the West Lothian Question

The faculty of Scottish MPs to vote on English issues not applicable in their own constituencies has fueled calls for self-government on both sides of the border. But how might changes to Parliamentary procedure resolve the problem as part of a renewed union? 

Jim Gallagher
8 March 2012

The Government’s Commission on the West Lothian Question has at last got to work. But how can they answer a puzzle Gladstone thought beyond the wit of man, and why should they bother? In an IPPR research paper this month - England and the Union - I offered answers to both questions.

Let us start with why something should be done. The United Kingdom is a Union. A union has to be seen as legitimate by all of its parts. Ours is lopsided, with England 85% of the whole, dominant economically and politically. So for a long time the grumbling came from the Scots and Welsh: their views, even on domestic matters, were overridden by English votes at Westminster. Devolution has addressed that, but there’s a price.

When asked, most people think it can’t be right to allow Scottish MP’s to vote on English issues, which are devolved in Scotland. The same is now true for Wales and Northern Ireland. That’s the West Lothian Question: Westminster is the UK’s Parliament, but it’s England’s Parliament too.

Labour consciously ignored this. Stop asking the question; it’s not a big problem in practice and just another of the splendid eccentricities that make up the British constitution.

But as the three small nations assert their identities more clearly, so have the English, and with that comes pressure for some sort of political recognition. There is now a risk that the union could lose democratic legitimacy in England.

Of course if you are a nationalist (Scottish or English), you might welcome that: undermining consent for the Union is a useful precursor to breaking it up. From that viewpoint the West Lothian Question is a useful irritant that draws attention to the anomalies inherent in the UK.

Most people however don’t want separation. If you agree with them, what should be done, in order to secure continued consent for the Union? Would an English Parliament do the job, making things tidy all round? Apparently logical, but quite the wrong thing for a unionist like David Cameron to do.

The most prominent supporter of an English Parliament is Alex Salmond. Nationalists see it as a good way to end the UK. An English Prime Minister would dominate English politics, just as Salmond does Scottish. He (shall we call him Boris?) would be a bigger figure than David Cameron. Nation would treat with nation and the union would become a thing of the past. Scottish independence would certainly solve the problem – though not for Wales or Northern Ireland.

An option often canvassed is to cut the number of non-English MP’s at Westminster. That’s where Gladstone ended up for Ireland. But it’s not really an answer, as some would still be there voting. And it would break the link between taxation and representation at Westminster.

That would have to be part of the package if notions of ‘devo-max’ or ‘devo-plus’ currently canvassed in Scottish debate ever made it to the stage of being concrete proposals. That’s no certainty, and won’t fly for Wales or Northern Ireland for a long time, if ever.

I believe the best answer today lies in changes to Parliamentary processes for English legislation. It takes us down the arcane byways of Commons procedure, but can be done. It would oblige a government, especially one without a majority of English MP’s, to pay heed to English opinion, A variant of the plans Ken Clarke drew up for the Conservative Party in 2008 is entirely practicable.

The trick is to set up a route through the Commons that involves English (or sometimes English and Welsh) Committees at key points. All MP’s still have the same formal status, but committees can reflect English views. It should be designed not to hamstring a government wholly. That’s important, as England’s government has to be able to govern.

Here is how to make it work. The whole House of Commons would vote on the Second Reading of a Bill. That way the Government should be able to get a decision in principle for its Bills. But then the Committee and Report stages, at which a Bill can be amended, should be taken in English Committees, reflecting the balance of English MP’s. The Government should have to accept the amendments that can be made there, to get its Bill through. Otherwise it has to vote it down at Third Reading. It should not be able to reverse amendments there.

This sort of change needs a cross party consensus – it’s too easy to present as driven by partisan advantage.

That ought to be easier to achieve than might be obvious from the shrill political debate. First, it’s a myth that Tory England regularly has Labour governments foisted on it by the Celts. To form a stable government any party needs to win England. Other MP’s are only critical when England is split down the middle. That’s seldom happened: Harold Wilson struggled on with an English minority but a UK majority for two years from 1964, and for 8 months in 1974. But since then Labour has only won when it won England. The risk will be even less now that constituencies are to be equalised. So change will neither guarantee a Tory hegemony nor cripple every Labour Government.

Consensus on this is certainly needed. The UK lacks a convincing explanation of why and how the union hangs together - what makes a political union work, how do we keep our deeply integrated economy and still devolve some tax powers and, hardest of all, what sort of social union are we?

Devolution means the union is no longer banal (to use the phrase of the historian Colin Kidd) and taken for granted. Nationalism means its value and purpose has to be articulated. It’s only once we have distinguished it from a greater England that we will give sensible answers to those questions.

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