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.