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.

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.