The ‘English Majority Lock’ (EML): A simple solution to the West Lothian Question

Many questions that appear intractable often admit of a simple solution if you can find a better way of posing the question. The West Lothian Question is one such conundrum. In its original form, in the parliamentary question raised by MP Tam Dalyell in 1977, it asks:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable Members tolerate . . . at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

In the wake of actual devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Question has come to be viewed more as being, in my words: ‘how can one ensure that only English-elected MPs vote on England-only matters, just as it’s the elected representatives for the other nations’ devolved parliament and assemblies that now take the decisions in those same areas for their countries?’

Putting the Question this way can lead to endless discussions around sterile issues such as how you determine whether a law or decision affects England only, given that some ‘English’ bills also have clauses that affect one or more of the devolved nations to a varying extent; and given that the Barnett Formula funding mechanism means that decisions affecting public spending in England also have knock-on consequences for the block grants available to the devolved administrations.

The ‘Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill’ currently being sponsored in parliament by the Conservative MP Harriett Baldwin is designed to address these particular concerns by proposing that each section and clause of every bill identifies its territorial extent (i.e. which UK nation(s) it applies to) plus whether there are any Barnett consequentials. But Baldwin’s bill does not propose formally banning non-English MPs from voting on fully England-only clauses; and if a bill is almost exclusively English in extent but has major consequences for funding in other UK nations, then it will still be considered normal and acceptable for non-English MPs to participate fully in the voting.

So this gets us nowhere. However, there is another way of posing the West Lothian Question that virtually contains the answer in its very formulation, and that is:

“How can you ensure that the decision of English MPs on a matter that affects England but not some or all of the devolved nations, either in its entirety or in part, is not overturned by the votes of non-English MPs?”

Putting the Question this way cuts to the quick of the sense of injustice that the non-resolution of the West Lothian Question has aroused: in several crucial votes affecting England but not (directly) the rest of the UK, the votes of non-English MPs have been critical in overturning the decision of English MPs in precisely the way that Tam Dalyell envisaged, such as the notorious decisions to introduce tuition fees and foundation hospitals in England during New Labour’s protracted term in office. That’s why the West Lothian Question matters: it’s a case of basic democratic fairness that if a measure relates to one nation or jurisdiction, it should not be either driven through or blocked by the votes of MPs representing citizens from outside of that jurisdiction. Allowing that to happen is pure gerrymandering of a most pernicious sort: one that poisons the relationships between the normally friendly nations of the UK.

But in the formulation of the Question in this way, the answer immediately comes to mind: you should simply not allow non-English MPs to effectively overturn the decision of English MPs on English matters. In other words, my solution to the West Lothian Question, which I’m calling the ‘England Majority Lock’ (EML), can be set out as follows:

In parliamentary matters that relate to any policy area that has been devolved to any extent to one or more of the UK’s nations, the support of a majority of English MPs as well as a majority of all UK MPs is required for a measure to be passed.

My EML rule obviates the need to equivocate about which individual clauses are England-only or not by saying that any bill or vote that does not relate in its entirety to the UK as a whole is an ‘English matter’, in that bills relating to devolved matters do always relate in full to England, whether or not they also relate in part or in full to the other UK nations. So in those instances, a majority of English MPs need to vote for the matter as well as a majority of UK MPs.

One potential consequence of the EML is that you could have parties commanding a majority of all UK MPs that would not command a majority in England. This was not in fact the case during the Blair-Brown governments, when Labour had majorities in both England and the UK. However, a future election could easily see Labour winning a majority UK-wide but failing to secure a majority in England. The EML would prevent Labour from using its superior haul of Scottish and Welsh MPs to drive through English legislation that did not command the support of most English MPs. However, this could lead to a crisis of government, with the party of UK government not being able to get any of its English bills through parliament.

The obvious solution to this problem, if it arose, would be for coalition government, e.g. for Labour to seek a coalition deal with the Lib Dems to ensure they had a majority of English MPs as well as UK MPs. This is not perhaps a consequence of resolving the West Lothian Question that would be to many people’s liking, but it would still be democratically fairer: it’s a matter of principle, whether or not one gets the colour of government one would like as an effect of correcting the injustice.

To sum up, there is a simple solution to the West Lothian Question but only if you define it in a simple way: there are matters that are 100% English and not 100% UK in their effects; and those matters should not be allowed to pass if they do not command the support of most English MPs. Simples.

But will the present crop of UK MPs implement a simple solution such as this? Unlikely, as it would strip Labour of its gerrymandering route to power; and it would involve establishing ‘English governance’ as a reality at the heart of the UK parliament: it would involve formally stating that there are some areas of UK legislation and policy that are English in a particular way and are not just UK matters. Setting such a precedent runs fundamentally counter to the UK parliament’s and state’s self-preservation instincts, which are that an English polity must be denied and suppressed at all counts in case it strips the UK establishment of its raison d’être.

But if a solution to fair English government within the UK parliament is not found, then the more drastic solution of an English parliament may be the surer outcome. My challenge to MPs is to ask them whether they’d prefer to answer the West Lothian Question or instead have the more challenging English Question increasingly raise its head. And that is a question that only the English people and not UK MPs can answer.

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7 Responses

  1. I am a Scottish Nationalist. Our MPs routinely abstain on English only issues. Being fully understanding of a nations self determination non English MPs should participate in the debate but abstain from the vote.

    In reality we are talking about Labours disregard for English people. Always with ZaNu Labour it is party before people.

    In Scots Parliament labour routinely vote against sensible policies. That are supported in London by Labour because they are hypocrites.

  2. The 119 non-English MPs use the knock-on consequences to the block grant as an excuse for meddling in matters which are none of their business. The answer is simple – end the unfair Barnett Formula. The EML suggestion would not work for the reasons you mention. If the Conservatives won more votes in England but Labour won a majority in the UK, your solution would be for Labour to form a coalition with the Lib Dems and yet again, as happened last May, the wishes of the English would be ignored. Not only do people in England want to see an end to Scottish, Welsh & NI MPs voting on English only matters which don’t affect their own constituents but they also deserve to get the party they vote for to govern them and not the government chosen for them by the rest of the UK who then have the luxury of voting again for their own parliament/assemblies making totally different decisions from the UK Gov chosen to govern England. The only democratic solution is an ENGLISH PARLIAMENT but our spineless politicians are afraid to ask us if we want one because they are afraid they may not like the answer so your last comment ‘and that is a question only the English can answer’ shamefully does not apply.

    • Well, in reality, JoolsB, in the scenario I mapped out, Labour and the Lib Dems together would have to have a majority both in England and the UK as a whole. So you could argue a left-of-centre coalition government of that sort better reflected the wishes of English voters. For instance, at the last election, Labour and the Lib Dems combined won 52% of the votes in England, whereas the Tories won only 40%. So a Lab-Lib coalition, if the arithmetic of the seats won had permitted it, would arguably have been ‘the government chosen by the English’.

      But I do agree with you that the best answer is an English parliament, which is what I want. I’m just arguing that there is a ‘solution’ to the West Lothian Question that the UK parliament could try out if it wants to save itself. In reality, though, I think the days both of the UK as currently constituted, and hence of the UK parliament as we know, it are numbered.

      • David,
        Do you think the people of Wales would have accepted a coalition of all the opposition parties if collectively they polled more than Labour or Scotland accepting a coalition of all the parties except the SNP because together they could form a majority? Of course not, they’d be rioting in the streets so why should England have to accept a coalition of all the runners up and the not the party it, and it alone votes for. The Conservatives won an overwhelming majority in England last May and yet the wishes of England, unlike the rest of the UK, are overturned. If Brown could have made the numbers stack up, he would have had no qualms in forming a rainbow coalition of Labour,LibDems,Scottish & Welsh Nats, to govern England, every party except the one it voted for. This is why England must have it’s own parliament so it gets the party it chooses just as Scotland, Wales & NI are allowed to do.
        Glad to hear you’re in favour of an English Parliament though.

      • JoolsB, the Conservatives won a majority of seats in England in 2010 but not a majority of votes; so England didn’t ‘choose’ the Conservative Party. If you think England did vote for a Conservative government, then on the same basis, you’d have to accept that England voted for a Labour government in 2005 because Labour won a majority of seats – whereas, in fact, the Conservatives actually gained more votes than Labour in England in that election.

        I totally agree with you that a Labour-led coalition UK government including the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru, the one Green MP, and one or more of the N. Irish parties would have been a complete outrage and a totally ‘West Lothian government’. However, my EML idea would have prevented that, as Labour wouldn’t have been able to muster the same majority in England. In fact, the only possible majority government, under my system, would have been the one we actually got, because it’s the only realistic combination that could command a majority both across the UK and England.

        Admittedly, in an English parliament elected using the First Past the Post system, the Tories would have won an overall majority based on the last general election. But an English parliament would almost certainly have to be elected using a proportional voting system. Otherwise, it would be a total stitch-up between the Conservatives and Labour, who would be able to take it in turns to form a disproportional government just as they do in the Westminster parliament now. So you’d probably end up with coalition government most of the time in an EP. Besides, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives combined polled 64% of the vote in England; so the present Westminster coalition arguably is far more representative of English opinion than either a Tory-only government or the Labour governments of Blair or Brown.

  3. […] Posted by englishwarrior Many questions that appear intractable often admit of a simple solution if you can find a better way of posing the question. The West Lothian Question is one such conundrum. In its original form, in the parliamentary question raised by MP Tam Dalyell in 1977, it asks: "For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable Members tolerate . . . at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an impor … Read More […]

  4. […] wouldn’t be an issue if my own particular ‘solution’ to the WLQ were adopted: the ‘English Majority Lock’ (EML). In essence, this rule says that any bill that relates substantively to England only (or to […]

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