West Lothian Question: Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer

We were told this week that the West Lothian Commission would finally begin its work in February 2012 and would report in spring 2013. But I would caution people not to expect any answer to be put into effect until after the next UK general election in 2015 at the earliest.

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the options available for addressing the West Lothian Question (WLQ) will be affected by the options that are offered to, and chosen by, the Scottish people in the SNP’s planned independence referendum, in 2014 or 2015. It is, for example, widely expected that three choices will be offered to the Scots: the status quo, devolution max / independence lite (i.e. fiscal autonomy and greater devolved powers but under a continuing UK umbrella) or full independence. The solutions required to adequately deal with the WLQ are different under the status quo than under devo max, let alone Scottish independence.

For instance, under the status quo, the West Lothian Commission would be likely to propose, if anything, only a modest procedural tweak to parliamentary procedure along the lines of that recommended by the present Justice Secretary Ken Clarke when in opposition. If I remember correctly, this involved only English MPs being allowed to vote at English bills’ report and committee stages in their passage through Parliament, but all UK MPs being allowed to vote at those bills’ other stages – but not being able to reverse the decisions of English MPs made at the report and committee stages. This is such a technical fix that most laypersons would hardly notice the difference; and this still does not address, let alone resolve, the question of non-English-elected ministers, prime ministers and MPs being allowed to bring forward England-only bills and play an active role in seeing them through the legislative process, even if they couldn’t participate directly at every stage of that process.

If, on the other hand, the Scottish people opt for devo max / indy lite, then the demand for a more meaningful answer to the WLQ, including from Tory backbenchers, would probably become irresistible. It would clearly be unjustifiable for Scottish MPs to determine policies and make spending decisions for England that had no impact on their own constituents at all. This is of course the main reason why the unfair Barnett Formula has remained in place for so long: it provides a justification for non-English MPs to vote on English matters because of the consequential impact on spending in their own countries.

Therefore, the solution to the WLQ that is applicable will be dependent on the timing and outcome of the Scottish referendum. This impediment could be alleviated if the government came good on its threat to organise its own Scottish-independence referendum sooner than 2014. However, UK ministers and MPs that have advocated this course of action have insisted that such a referendum should ask a straight in / out (union or independence) question, and not offer the middle way of devo max. Accordingly, even if there were a ‘no’ vote in an in / out referendum, the option of devo max would still be on the cards, as the Scottish government would almost certainly still proceed with its own referendum (for which it justifiably argues it has an electoral mandate) and would undoubtedly offer devo max as an alternative to independence. So one way or another, a durable solution to the WLQ cannot be arrived at until after the Scottish referendum.

The second reason why no workable answer to the WLQ will be implemented until 2015 at the earliest is that some of the potential solutions could fundamentally alter the balance of power within the governing coalition. If, for example, only English MPs were allowed to introduce and vote on England-only legislation, the Conservatives wouldn’t need the support of Lib Dem MPs for those bills, as the Tories enjoy an overall majority in England. Therefore, the Lib Dems are hardly likely to approve any measure that compromises the coalition, which they and the Conservatives have adamantly insisted is set in stone until the next election.

This 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 England and Wales only, for example) must be approved by a majority of English MPs only (or English and Welsh MPs only respectively) as well as a majority of all UK MPs. In other words, a majority of all UK MPs cannot trump a majority of English MPs on any England-only matter; but equally, the support of a majority of all UK MPs is still required for any England-only (or England and Wales-only) measure. The EML would not compromise the coalition in any way, because the Lib Dems would still be needed to provide the support of all UK MPs for any Conservative England-only measure – which is pretty much how things have been working out in the coalition in any case!

However, the chances of the EML being adopted are pretty slim, I would say, as it would mean that any workable UK-government majority would in future need to command a majority of English-elected MPs as well as a majority of all UK MPs, which the Labour Party would reject, as it would prevent them from using their Scottish and Welsh MPs to outvote the majority of English MPs as they did most notoriously in the case of Foundation Hospitals and university tuition fees. But maybe if the Conservatives and Lib Dems are smart enough, they could latch on to the EML precisely for this reason. However, even the EML is predicated on the status quo vis-à-vis Scotland, and it’s doubtful how long that will continue; and no one, least of all the establishment, unionist parties seems willing to think beyond the long grass to the obvious long-term ‘solution’: an English parliament within a federal or confederal UK, with or without Scotland.

None of these more fundamental issues are likely to be resolved until after the Scottish referendum and the next UK general election. So my guess is the West Lothian Commission will come up with a series of options that are dependent on a range of eventualities. And the eventual decision will be taken not by the people of England but by the people of Scotland and by the body of UK MPs as a whole, who, like turkeys, are unlikely to vote for Christmas.

Seasonal greetings to you – and them – all!

English parliament

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One Response

  1. Looking at these possibilities just makes me want the clean break of independence. Waes hael

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