The recent vote on Scottish independence has brought the West Lothian Question back to the fore, most noticeably through debate around the idea of “English votes for English laws”. But why is this an issue and what do the possible solutions look like?
First thing’s first though… What is the West Lothian Question?
The West Lothian Question
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have governing powers devolved from the UK Parliament. They have their own parliaments or assemblies which can vote on and control certain issues, for example, education.
This is fine and good in most people’s eyes. However, it results in the following quirk: continuing with the education example, Members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs) can change how education in Scotland works by voting in their own parliament (that’s Scottish politicians voting for Scottish laws). But to change how education in England works, MPs from across all four countries can vote in the UK Parliament. That’s English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs voting on English laws. Why do they get to vote on English laws but not the other way around? That is the unresolved West Lothian Question.
English Votes for English Laws
More devolved power has been promised to Scotland in the wake of the recent independence campaign and the more power that is devolved, the bigger the West Lothian issue becomes.
David Cameron was very quick to tie the ‘No’ vote from Scotland with the issue of “English votes for English laws” (EVEL). In some regards it makes sense to deal with both devolution and EVEL at the same time but it is also undoubtedly political since many solutions will favour the Conservative Party (see below).
The pithy slogan is catchy and hard to argue against but what would it actually involve?
Here are some of the possibilities:
1. An English Parliament
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own parliaments or assemblies, so couldn’t we just even things out with an English one too?
It sounds appealing as an equaliser but would probably cause more problems than it would solve. The English population accounts for around 85% of the UK’s population and is ten times larger than Scotland in second place. As such, an English Parliament would be disproportionately powerful, perhaps to the extent that it would bring into question the purpose of the original UK Parliament.
This naturally leads to the next idea.
2. Regional Devolution or Federalisation
If England is too big for a single parliament then how about breaking it into smaller chunks?
This would mean devolving powers to regions (e.g. the North East, the South West), cities (e.g. Manchester, Birmingham) or some other localities, and setting up regional parliaments or assemblies of some description. These regions might look a little like the States that comprise America. This process is also be called Federalisation.
This idea appeals to me personally as it seems like a positive step forward rather than a reactionary compromise. Less importantly, it would be an exciting change and provide loads of new material for those of us interested in politics.
However, there are lots of other issues. For example, how would we decide what constitutes a given region, ensure each is reasonably well balanced with the next and try to instill some feeling of unity amongst the citizens of a newly created state?
Also, although people approve of “English votes for English laws”, does that mean there is a legitimate mandate for such an overhaul? Labour ran referenda on the idea of regional devolution and it was rejected.
It would also involve a huge amount of bureaucracy and create several new layers of government.
This is the biggest and boldest of all the ideas. The final option lies at the other end of the spectrum.
3. English Laws and a Double Majority
The simplest “solution” is to decide whether a bill going through Parliament only effects England and, if so, require that only MPs from English constituencies can vote on it.
Practically, this might most easily be achieved through a system of “Double Majority”. Rather than having two tiers of MP (i.e. those that can vote on English laws and those that can’t), just require that an English bill achieves both a basic majority (as with any bill) and also a majority amongst English MPs (i.e. without the votes of MPs from Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland).
This is very easy to implement compared to the other ideas but still a little messy. It won’t always be obvious, for example, whether any given bill is solely an English issue or not. It could also quite possibly result in a government (probably a Labour one) that has a majority in Britain but not in England. This may not be the end of the world but it doesn’t seem much cleaner than the current system.
Finally, it’s worth noting here that this option, in particular, has political connotations. Scotland and Wales are strong for Labour and the Liberal Democrats but weak for the Conservatives. As such, it’s in Tory interests to have only English MPs voting (so expect to see them pushing for this) and much harder for Labour to secure a proper majority without Scotland (so expect to see them tying themselves in knots to avoid this without admitting it).
Which of those would you vote for?