It’s time to address the Westminster Question, not the West Lothian one

The extremely modest terms of the West Lothian Commission were announced yesterday:

“To consider how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom, following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales.”

Well, I’d like to make a comment on the ‘terms’ in which this announcement was made and, indeed, on the term ‘West Lothian Question’ itself. You might have noticed that the word ‘England’ is absent from this announcement, despite the fact that the term ‘West Lothian Question’ in common usage relates primarily or even exclusively to House of Commons voting on legislation which affects England, not just “part of the UK”. And what on earth is “part of the UK” supposed to mean, anyway? It’s obviously another rhetorical device to refer to England without actually saying ‘England’, because if what you wanted to say is ‘one or more parts [i.e. countries] of the UK’, you’d say ‘parts of the UK’ (plural). So England, in the very terms of reference of the West Lothian Question, has been reduced to an amorphous, anonymous ‘part of the UK’. Very promising.

And it’s not only in these explicit terms of reference for the commission that the very concept of England has been evaded. The West Lothian Question itself, in its original form as posed by West Lothian MP Tam Dalyell in 1977, explicitly focused on England:

“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?”

So I’d like to suggest to the West Lothian Commission that they need to revise their terms of reference. Whatever they’re getting together to discuss, it isn’t the West Lothian Question if it doesn’t include an explicit consideration of how England should be governed, and whether the House of Commons as a whole is fit for that purpose.

And that’s the problem, really. The Commission will focus merely on parliamentary procedure, i.e. on the second part of Tam Dalyell’s question: “How long will . . . English Honourable Members tolerate . . .?” The answer in practice has been, in fact, that English MPs in the main have tolerated the West Lothian anomaly remarkably well, for reasons of political convenience. The WLQ artificially bolstered Labour’s parliamentary majority between 1997 and 2010, including in certain decisive votes (such as those on university tuition fees and Foundation Hospitals) in which Tam Dalyell’s words were proved prophetic: “Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics”. And now, the addition of the Lib Dems’ cohort of Scottish MPs to the governing coalition provides a spurious veneer that it constitutes a genuine UK-wide government, which it would not have if it were a minority Conservative administration – the Tories having only one MP north of the border.

From the parliamentary perspective that is that of the Commission, the problem, it seems, is more how ‘Honourable Members’ from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would tolerate being excluded from having a decisive impact on English politics if the answer to the West Lothian Question was to exclude them, rather than how English members get on with not having a say in corresponding matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which they don’t seem to mind at all! Perhaps that’s why the story was covered on the BBC’s Scottish politics page yesterday, rather than its ‘English politics’ page, as Tam Dalyell might put it. Or perhaps the BBC had no other place to run it, as it doesn’t even have an ‘English politics’ page but only a heading on the general politics page reading ‘Around England’, containing separate links to stories from ‘around England’, i.e. from the (English) regions.

So the answer to ‘the part’, to coin a phrase, of the original West Lothian Question that deals with parliamentary protocol can be reasonably accurately predicted from the terms of reference adopted: it will try to find a mechanism that preserves a role for non-English-elected MPs in debating and scrutinising English bills, without allowing them to have a decisive impact on that legislation in terms of their actual voting – although they will still be able to have a decisive impact overall, in that Scottish- and Welsh-elected MPs would still be able to become prime ministers or ministers with English portfolios; so they would still be involved in drafting English legislation as well as in ensuring its passage through the parliamentary process as a whole.

But, as I say, this is only one part of the West Lothian Question – the other part being: “How long will English constituencies . . . tolerate . . .?”. For ‘English constituencies’, substitute ‘English voters’ or the ‘English people’. While English-elected MPs may have accepted the West Lothian anomaly tolerably well since 1999, English voters are increasingly furious about it, a recently publicised IPPR poll finding, for instance, that 79% of English people want Scottish MPs barred from voting on English bills. A minor tweak to parliamentary procedure, in which non-English-elected MPs will still be able to direct and shape English legislation, even if they are not able to override the voting decisions of their English-elected colleagues, will do nothing to appease this anger or mitigate this injustice.

I think we may have to re-name this part of the West Lothian Question the ‘Westminster Question’. A contemporary re-phrasing of it might read as follows:

For how long will English voters tolerate non-English-elected Westminster MPs making their laws?

Simple question. But the mis-named West Lothian Commission isn’t even addressing the limited parliamentary aspect of the question properly (because it won’t acknowledge that it centres on England) let alone the Westminster Question. But the looming importance of the Westminster Question makes their deliberations virtually null and void before they’ve even started.

English parliament