Calum Crichton is a unionist activist and blogger from the West of Scotland. This article first appeared on his own blog, which can be read here.
Ever since last week’s ‘no’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum the debate over devolution in the United Kingdom has once again come to the forefront of British politics. In his post-referendum speech, David Cameron explained that while he will honour the devolution commitment made to Scotland by the three main pro-union parties, it is now only right that the so-called English, or West Lothian question, is now settled.
The West Lothian question, of course, refers to the fact that Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs are able to vote on laws and English legislation that affect England only and have no affect on their own constituents, and at the same time MPs – from any component nation of the UK – cannot vote on the same matter in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland because the matter is a devolved responsibility.
In pledging to solve this anomaly Cameron has set a trap for his political opponents, because he stated that the English question “must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland.” Yet this was not the commitment made to people in Scotland before the referendum, which was enhanced devolution not conditional on the settlement for England. Downing Street has therefore had to clarify that delivering change for Scotland does not depend on what happens in England. And it’s just as well, because solving the West Lothian question will not be easy and can certainly not be completed in the timetable set out for introducing a new Scotland Act.
So how should one solve the West Lothian question? Numerous solutions have been put forward by politicians, commentators, and commissions over the years, but none of them are perfect in design which is why nothing has actually been done about it yet. Indeed, some argue that because of England’s population share it dominants the union in any case, and so the best solution to the West Lothian question is to stop asking it. Indeed, people in England elect 533 of the 650 MPs in the UK parliament.
Whether the West Lothian question matters in practice then, is up for debate. However, in terms of perceived fairness of the devolution arrangements across the UK it clearly does matter to the English.
Besides doing nothing, there are generally four main solutions that have been put forward over the years, as follows:
- An English parliament.
- Regional assemblies.
- A devolution discount.
- English votes for English laws.
- Let’s consider each of these in turn.
An English parliament, favoured by some Conservative MPs such as John Redwood, is at first glance an ideal solution to the asymmetric devolution model in the UK. An English parliament would work in the same way as the Scottish parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, becoming responsible for devolved matters such as health and education. The UK would then be a truly federal state, with Westminster becoming the federal government responsible for foreign policy, defence, macroeconomic issues, and perhaps some aspects of social security and taxation.
There are two main problems with such an idea though. The first is that it would introduce an additional layer of government, for which there is little appetite. The second and more fundamental issue, however, is that it risks destabilising the union. What should be the balance of power, for example, between the English First Minister and the Prime Minister? Indeed, because England contributes over 80% of the population, decisions taken in England in relation to fiscal policy are likely to have a significant impact on Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. And yet MPs from these component nations would have no influence over such decisions.
As Professor of Government Vernon Bogdanor from King’s College London makes clear, there is no federation in history which has operated successfully when one of the units is so dominant. The nearest is Canada, where 35% of the population live in Ontario. Examples of federations which have failed due to an overly-dominating component are the West Indies (dominated by Jamaica), Prussia (dominated by Germany), the USSR (dominated by Russia), Czechoslovakia (dominated by the Czech Republic), and Yugoslavia (dominated by Serbia).
Instead of an English parliament then, why not create regional assemblies in each of the nine English regions in the UK identified by the Treasury? The obvious advantage is that it would result in a strengthening of local government. But is there demand for elected regional assemblies across England? In 2004, for instance, the North East overwhelmingly rejected an elected assembly in a referendum. An alternative to method to strengthening local government is the idea of an elected major. Again, however, there is no demand for this and recent referendums have rejected this proposal.
A major problem with regional assemblies or similar methods is establishing the right devolution settlement for each region. Do people really want different rates of income tax for Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, and the South East, for instance? And if not can sufficient policies be devolved that can be seen to make a real difference?
The UK’s devolution model has so far been characterised by a pooling of taxes and devolved spending power. While this gives rise to social solidarity, it does so at the expense of local accountability. While technicalities and the need for social union place limits on how much responsibility can be devolved, the right mix depends crucially on the circumstances of each devolved institution. In Scotland, for instance, it will be possible to move towards a situation where the Scottish parliament becomes more responsible for raising the money it spends. This is because Scotland has a strong economy and so there is a greater need for fiscal autonomy.
Wales and Northern Ireland, by contrast, have weaker economies and smaller tax bases, and so the need for social solidarity is far greater. But how should the right balance be struck across the regions in England? Offering widely different settlements to different regions may risk causing political tensions.
Maybe, then, a devolution discount is the answer? In other words, reduce the number of Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs elected to Westminster to reduce the likelihood of English MPs being outvoted on English-only issues. While this in theory makes sense, there are numerous practical reasons why it is not a realistic option.
Firstly it does not directly address the West Lothian anomaly, and secondly there is no obvious amount by which non-English MPs should be reduced. Thirdly, it is paramount that the component nations of the UK elect a population share of MPs to the UK parliament. This is because Westminster sets taxes in addition to determining legislation, and so reducing the number of non-English MPs will only succeed in breaking the link between taxation and representation in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
So surely English votes for English laws (EVEL) is the answer to the West Lothian question? After all, it makes sense in principle and would avoid many of the problem with alternative solutions. In practice, though, it is much more challenging.
As a technicality there is rarely such a thing as an ‘English law’, since territorial extent clauses in UK Acts of Parliament typically extend to the whole of the United Kingdom. Others extend to England and Wales, and some to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Defining an ‘English-only’ law could be a problematic business.
The political difficulties are even greater. Currently every MP from every constituency in the UK has the exact same voting rights. Excluding, say, Scottish MPs from voting on certain issues would create two classes of MPs, and would in effect create a parliament within a parliament. The political geography of the UK and the first-past-the-post electoral system might well mean that Labour win a majority in the House of Commons only because of its Scottish seats. Strip them away and you’d have a Conservative majority government.
So there would be a UK majority one day and an English majority the next. So Labour might determine policy on macroeconomic policy, for example, but not on education. Ministers would have to switch places frequently at parliament from the front bench when a UK matter was under discussion to the opposition benches when an ‘English-only’ matter was on the agenda. This would completely undermine the principle of collective responsibility and the nature of British democracy, which ensures that the government is responsible for all of the issues that come before Parliament and not just a selection of them.
Another problem is that it raises questions of wider political reform and representation. Could, for instance, a Scottish MP be given a front bench role as Education Secretary if such a matter is devolved? Would this be fair even though Scotland is still part of the UK’s educational framework and infrastructure? If they are excluded, what about the role of the Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer? Surely it would be wrong to have a situation where the Prime Minster or Chancellor can only represent an English constituency?
Another question is what effect EVEL has on the House of Lords. Currently all bills in the House of Commons are also processed through the House of Lords. Should non-English members be excluded from contributing to the debate in the second chamber? And if so at what stage? Why should the House of Lords vote on English-only matters but not on Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish ones?
Moreover, the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are not elected by first-past-the-post as for UK elections. In Scotland and Wales the additional member system is used, whereas in Northern Ireland members are elected by the single transferable vote. Why should English voters not enjoy some sort of proportional representation? PEVEL? Yet if this is done, what would be done about MPs who are elected through first-past-the-post but not under a proportional system, and vice-versa?
There are also representative issues. The UK’s fiscal model works by pooling tax revenues at a UK level and devolving spending decisions. So even under the enhanced devolution settlement to Scotland there will still be a gap between what the parliament spends and what it raises. Indirectly, then, even though some items of expenditure are devolved, Scottish MPs still have a role for influencing how money is raised at a UK level.
And from the English viewpoint there could be some uncertainty over MPs’ mandate. Were they elected for their commitments to welfare issues at a UK level, or on education and health policies at an English level?
Yet, despite some of these problems, there may be a solution to the injustice raised by the West Lothian question. It is still along the lines of EVEL, but a somewhat less problematic version of it, and is advocated by Professor Jim Gallagher who was Secretary of the Calman Commission. In his paper for the IPPR on the issue, Gallagher explained that there is no need to create different classes of MPs in Westminster in order to allow each component nation of the UK to set its own policy agenda on certain issues.
Under his proposals, the entire House of Commons should vote on the second and third reading of a bill just as they do now. But at the committee and report stage, where bills can be amended, contributions should be made from English-only MPs. Something similar was also recently advocated by the McKay Commission.
So what is to be done? The answer to that question is not clear. What is clear, however, is that the ‘no’ vote in the Scottish referendum has reignited the debate on the British constitution. Only time will tell whether our politicians can respond with a fair and sustainable solution that will be successful in giving each component UK nation a strong voice, as well as decentralising power from Westminster.
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