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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

CREDIT: GETTY
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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum