The “West Lothian question,” first posed in 1977, asks why Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs have the right to vote at Westminster on matters which affect only England. Recent promises of further devolution have brought calls for “English votes for English laws.”by Neal Ascherson, Charlotte Leslie / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Neal Ascherson (yes, left) and Charlotte Leslie (no, right). © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty images Should Scottish MPs be able to vote on English matters? Neal Ascherson—Scottish journalist and author English votes for English laws” is a stone thrown into a murky pond. In itself, the stone is small, without much substance. What matters is the splash, the waves, and the ugly creatures brought for a moment to the surface. Should Scottish MPs (56 out of 59 of them members of the Scottish National Party) continue to vote on “English” legislation? The snarky response is that English MPs outvoted Scottish MPs on Scottish matters for 292 years before devolution. The serious response, which most Scots would give, is that they should not. Until now, the only Scottish bloc insisting that they should was the Labour Party: without its phalanx of 41 MPs in Scotland, would Labour ever regain a British majority? That bloc has now almost vanished, taking its grievance with it. “English laws” are almost impossible to identify. As Vernon Bogdanor explained in Prospect (December 2014), almost all legislation involving public expenditure affects Scotland, because the block grant to Scotland under the Barnett formula varies with the level of public spending in the United Kingdom as a whole. Michael Kenny of Queen Mary, University of London, calculates that in 2006 just eight out of 55 Acts passed by Westminster had no explicit Scottish content, but Scotland could claim “a legitimate interest” in all but one of them. The core problem here is tiny. What we are really talking about is two other things. One is rising English nationalism. The other is the SNP’s intention to vote on all those “mostly” English and Welsh bills. This is not just because they may marginally affect Scotland but because of all those panicky promises that Scotland would be treated as an “equal partner” in the UK. Other parties may come to value SNP support for “progressive” causes. Without the hated Irish “Home Rulers,” HH Asquith could never have broken the neck of the House of Lords in 1911. But if English MPs continue to feel that Scottish MPs are not entitled to full “British” rights, then the answer is either a federal UK (impossible) or Scottish independence (the soundest solution). Charlotte Leslie—Conservative MP “English votes for English laws” is a simple matter of fairness. I strongly support the concept of devolution, but it has its consequences. SNP MPs understandably want to ensure that the new government delivers on “the vow” of extra powers, which would see the devolution of more control over taxation and welfare, but I do not see how they can, in good faith, still expect to be able to vote on those same powers when they apply to England. In previous parliaments, the SNP MPs recognised the unfairness of the situation and took a self-denying ordinance, refusing to vote on English-only matters, but now seem to want to use their new found numbers to affect legislation that has no link to Scotland at all. A cynic might call it hypocritical that they are suddenly taking such an interest in the future direction of the country from which they claim to want to break away. The government’s proposals are very fair to the Scottish MPs, and workable: they will not prevent Scottish MPs from speaking in debates on any legislation, and they will rightly maintain the right of all MPs to vote on issues affecting the whole country. You raise the concern that it is difficult to define an “England-only” piece of legislation, but it is surely not beyond the collective wit of the House of Commons to establish some parameters for this and to place the decision in the hands of an impartial adjudicator. My constituents in Bristol North West simply do not understand this situation of representation without taxation. It is unfair and needs to change now. Your constituents sense a kind of injustice, and their instinct is right. But the injustice is not that Scottish MPs should vote on, say, the English NHS budget. Close scrutiny shows that almost no Westminster legislation is without some Scottish consequential impact. No, the injustice is larger and elsewhere. It is that England has no legislature of its own in which English votes really can determine English laws. On devolved matters, the Scottish parliament can vote without any input from other parts of the UK. But even though devolution means that, in practice, the Westminster parliament is now dealing almost exclusively with legislation that almost exclusively affects England, it is that “almost” which is creating the friction. You may not fancy the sort of people who currently demand an English parliament, but they do have a case. You say that it’s not beyond the wit of man to define what is English legislation and what is not. The wit of man can fudge anything, especially at Westminster. As I argued, absolutely English bills are vanishingly rare, and so our whole debate is unreal. But let’s pretend that some cabal of clever geeks huddled behind the Speaker’s chair can cook up a wide definition of what could be treated as English laws. You have then created two categories of MP, one of which will be wondering why it is hanging around in London at great cost to the public when it has little more to do than vote occasionally on bills about foreign affairs or defence. As those MPs will be Scottish or Welsh, their urge to simply walk out of parliament and go home, as the Irish MPs finally did in 1918, will become irresistible. It’s also probable that British democracy would be faced with the “dual majority” nightmare. A government elected by voters from all four parts of the UK would find itself impotent to legislate on English matters because there a (probably) Tory committee majority would prevail. The United Kingdom in its present shape would not long survive that. The absurd truth now is that England will revive as a democratic nation only by getting rid of Scotland. As Tam Dalyell used to say with such sonority: “Let’s face it!” There is, of course, a case for a separate English parliament, and I recognise that it would solve many of the problems that we have highlighted. I come down against it for two simple reasons: first, because there would rightly be public outcry if we were to create another tier of politicians with all the associated costs which that would entail; and second, because I believe there is a neater and more straightforward solution that I have already outlined, namely establishing “English votes for English laws” in our existing parliament and by devolving more power to local authorities. You raise the thorny issue of the creation of two categories of MPs, but don’t we have that already? Is there not a difference between my status as the Member for Bristol North West, (rightly) unable to vote on the Scottish education system or the Welsh health service (which, by the way, many of my constituents work in or use), and that of an SNP MP who is able to cast a potentially decisive vote on reforms to schools or the NHS in England? Without reform, this situation will only be exacerbated by the imminent devolution of more powers to Scotland, especially over taxation and benefits. I cannot deny that the “dual majority” situation you describe would be a nightmare for any government that faced it, but is that really enough to justify the nightmare that England could face under our present system, subject to legislation that is against its will and the will of a majority of its MPs? I readily accept that there are few entire pieces of legislation that are truly England-only, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t numerous votes on amendments and new clauses that impact only on England. The devil is in the detail. We have come closer, which is very interesting. Where we diverge is on means. What you write suggests to me that your ideal solution would indeed be an English parliament—but that the upheaval, cost, confusion and consequent unpopularity involved in setting it up make it impractical. I don’t agree. Gloom about the cost of “yet another tier of politicians” soon blew away once the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly got going. And your ideas for a string-and-tape “English votes for English laws” apparatus trying to define which clause of a bill is English is anything but “neat and straightforward.” Its judgements would be constantly challenged by Scots while English MPs would probably find it did not defend English interests boldly enough. I opened a book of William Gladstone’s speeches today and it fell open—honestly—at this passage: “I think the presence of those Irish representatives would have some tendency to disparage the domestic legislature… Even if it were possible to divide the subjects, what an anomaly it would be, what a mutilation of all our elementary ideas about the absolute equality of members in this House, were we to have ordinarily among us two classes of members, one of them qualified to vote on all kinds of business and another qualified only to vote here and there.” That was April 1886. You really have to stop having a Groundhog Day about this every 20 years or so. “English votes for English laws” is an English cause, but your solution won’t work. Neither will “federalism.” The archaic Anglo-British constitution can’t distribute sovereignty and, more to the point, you can’t federalise three nations when one has 85 per cent of the population. But a “neat and straightforward” way to a grown-up English democracy is sitting there under our noses. It is to let the Scots and the Welsh—if they want to—leave the Union. I am reassured that we do seem to agree on the problem, but we diverge a great deal on the solution. You are right that we don’t want to keep having a Groundhog Day on this issue so I hope we can sort it out in this parliament—I believe that the government’s proposals are a sound starting point. I agree that federalism isn’t a practical solution. But my opposition to the creation of a separate English parliament is about more than just financial costs. With England making up 85 per cent of the UK’s population, it is simply unnecessary to create another level of representation when we have 533 MPs in Westminster already. “English votes” is the means of creating that English parliament within our existing system. The English have been consistently short-changed by devolution. Establishing some parity with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland shouldn’t drive those nations towards leaving the Union as long as they continue to receive a strong devolution settlement. “English votes” might upset some Scottish and Welsh MPs, but I’ve never seen any evidence that the people of Scotland and Wales think it’s unreasonable. Without introducing it soon, the threat to the Union will come from the English, who are rightly fed up with our parliament failing to speak and act for them. We’ve talked about change for decades; it’s time to do something about it.