Sunday, 11 September 2011

Put a cork in it, West Lothian

This is not Susan Boyle
This article was originally published on Amansaman.

This week an old, thorny question was in the news again. Harriett Baldwin, a Tory MP for nowhere near West Lothian, brought forward a private member’s bill in the House of Commons to try to settle the issue of MPs from non-English constituencies voting on English-only matters.

Private members bills are an important part of Westminster democracy. They allow any backbench MP to propose legislation to a largely empty parliament chamber, hold an entirely meaningless vote among a handful of MPs, and then barter with the government to try to get a small sliver of their argument into law.

Calling things obscure names because of events many years ago is also a strong Westminster tradition, which explains why the issue of MPs voting outside their geographic competence is known as the “West Lothian Question”.

In 1977, when “home rule” for Scotland seemed just around the corner, the then MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, was a vocal opponent of devolution. He pointed out that if Scotland had a parliament which was in charge of things like health and education, and English MPs therefore had no say in those areas in Scotland, then the fact that Scottish MPs would continue to have a say in those areas in England was a bit tricksy.

People nodded sagely, some muttering under their breath about the state of his hair, and agreed that at some point, something would have to be done. Enoch Powell, the fun-loving member for South Down, christened this the “West Lothian Question”, possibly because he couldn’t spell Dalyell’s name, and the moniker stuck. Happily for Tam, the mooted home rule never materialised, the Tories took over, and his question was shelved until 1997, when Labour got back into power and immediately embarked on devolution.

Remarkably, Tam Dalyell was still an MP, though by this point after boundary changes, for Linlithgow. (Disappointingly the question was never re-christened as the Linlithgow Question.) Once again the point was made about this clear problem, once again people nodded sagely, but in those heady early days of the Blair years all problems seemed minor, the sun glinted off Tony’s teeth, and it was decided to deal with it in due course, at some point, but really not worry about it too much.

Okay, perhaps a more honest version of the story would be that, with a large number of Scottish MPs being Labour, and the Blair government pushing through difficult reforms to English public services, having Scots voting on English-only matters was really quite handy for ensuring bills got passed, actually.

Fast forward to today, and with a Conservative-led government now pushing through their own disastrous challenging legislation, the existence of a phalanx of Scottish MPs, all but one of whom isn’t a Tory, brings the question to life properly. Tam himself is, sadly, no longer an MP so is unable to take part in the parliamentary discussions. But despite the government’s polite dismissal of Mrs Baldwin’s bill, it seems something may actually be about to be done.

A commission – of experts, no less – has just been set up to look into the issue. They will no doubt report on the usual glacial parliamentary timelines, but it is possible that before the end of this parliament, restrictions will be placed on non-English MPs to stop them voting on English-only laws.

But as Pete Wishart, the SNP MP, said in Friday’s debate, there is an elegant solution to this problem. It isn’t, as he suggested, Scottish independence, because that would leave people in Wales and Northern Ireland still voting on England’s business. No, it is even more obvious than that. It’s devolution for England to match the devolution in every other UK nation.

A federal United Kingdom. It’s the perfect answer. It has just one tiny flaw: the English don’t want an English parliament. They’re happy with the one they’ve got because they’ve never really noticed that it is anything more than an English parliament.

So, we shall see. Constitutional change of one sort or another is definitely coming. Scotland may vote for independence before Westminster hears back from the experts. English-only bills might end up getting special treatment in the Commons. Or the English people might rise up and demand their own, slightly different, parliament for some of the things that trouble them. But the main thing is, West Lothian will have its question answered. And I managed to get through this entire article without mentioning Susan Boyle. Ach, dammit.

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