Tam Dalyell, MP for West Lothian 1962-1983, who first posed the West Lothian Question. Photo: Getty
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What is the West Lothian Question?

The thorny issue of “English votes for English laws”.

Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for West Lothian from 1962 to 1983 (and then Linlithgow from 1983 to 2005) popularised what is commonly referred to as the West Lothian Question. Speaking in the Second Reading debate of the Scotland Bill on 14 November 1977, he raised what he considered to be “a basic design fault” in the way power is devolved in the UK – the fact that non-English MPs can vote on legislation that affects English politics, while English MPs do not have an equivalent say in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland:

I shall spare the House alliterative lists of being able to vote on the gut issue of politics in relation to Birmingham but not Bathgate. The fact is that the question with which I interrupted the Prime Minister on Thursday about my voting on issues affecting West Bromwich but not West Lothian, and his voting on issues affecting Carlisle but not Cardiff, is all too real and will not just go away.

If these alliterative lists simply symbolised some technical problem in the Bill, the House could be certain that Ministers would have ironed it out since February, if for no other reason than to spare themselves from having to listen to grinding repetition from me. That alone would have been ample reward and would have made their work solving the West Lothian-West Bromwich problem worthwhile.

The truth is that the West Lothian-West Bromwich problem is not a minor hitch to be overcome by rearranging the seating in the devolutionary coach. On the contrary, the West Lothian-West Bromwich problem pinpoints a basic design fault in the steering of the devolutionary coach which will cause it to crash into the side of the road before it has gone a hundred miles.

For how long will English constituencies and English hon. Members tolerate not just 71 Scots, 36 Welsh and a number of Ulstermen but at least 119 hon. 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 Ireland? Such a situation cannot conceivably endure for long.

It was actually Enoch Powell, responding to Dalyell, who said “Let us call it the West Lothian Question”, giving a name to a problem that has vexed politicians for decades (Prime Minister William Gladstone, who represented Midlothian in the 19th century, tried to address a similar issue raised by Irish Home Rule in the 1880s). Issues such as university tuition fees have raised it time and time again in recent years, for instance when Scottish MPs were instrumental in passing legislation in Westminster that raised tuition fees in England, while the Scottish Parliament abolished them in their own country.

Unsatisfactory as the lack of an answer to the West Lothian Question is, it has always been thought that to try restrict votes in the House of Commons just to English MPs would be a constitutional nightmare, since it would create two classes of representative within the same institution.

However, speaking in response to the No vote in the Scottish independence referendum, David Cameron said this morning:

I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws - the so-called West Lothian question - requires a decisive answer.

As ever, this problem is further complicated by politics. As my colleague George Eaton has pointed out, the balance of the parties in Westminster is such that if Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians were no longer allowed to vote on England-only legislation, any future Labour government would struggle to maintain a working majority, something which he says would hand “the Conservatives an effective veto” and likely leave “a future Labour Chancellor unable to pass his or her Budget”.

It’s all fiendishly complicated, and has decades of constitutional research and wrangling attached to it. It isn’t as simple as Ukip leader Nigel Farage is making it sound in media appearances this morning – he says he will now be agitating for “a fair voice for England” and justice for “English taxpayers”, without a hint of what the end goal of such a campaign would be. Cameron’s pledge that legislation will be ready by January seems ambitious.

Although, it might not be completely unrealistic. Work has been going on in the background on the question of “English votes for English laws” for years. Ken Clarke chaired a committee that made proposals in 2008, and both the 2010 Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos included a pledge to look into it. The McKay Commission was set up to do this in 2011, and reported in 2013 (read a summary of its recommendations here), so we can expect that its proposals will now be revisited.

Whatever David Cameron and the other national party leaders propose in the coming weeks and months, we can be sure that although that the question of Scottish independence has been settled for the moment, the debate on how England is represented has only just begun.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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