The West Lothian question

Yes, it’s another post where I give free rein to my inner political geek, I’m afraid.  There’s quite a lot going on with me, both in real life, and in mentalist terms, but that’s not something I feel I can write about at the moment, so I’m reduced to this dull-as-dishwater stuff.  Ah well, I’ll do my best to make it interesting.

So, it’s 10 years since the Scottish Parliament (or Pàrlamaid na h-Alba, if you speak Gaelic) was re-established with the resoundingly historic words ‘the Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March 1707, is hereby reconvened’.*  As my acknowledgement of the anniversary, I thought I’d write a post about the West Lothian question.  The WLQ is known by that name because it was famously asked by Tam Dalyell, who was MP for the West Lothian constituency.  Put in the simplest of terms, the question asks why Scottish MPs should be able to vote on matters that affect only England and Wales, while English and Welsh MPs are not able to do the same with matters that affect only Scotland.  The question is in one way very straightforward, and in others horrendously complicated.

The straightforward answer to the question is that they shouldn’t.  It’s fundamentally undemocratic for MPs from one part of the UK to be able to influence what happens in another part, when the same rights are not extended universally.  So much for the simple answer.

Many people would argue that the first practical demonstration of the unfairness of the situation occurred in 2004, when student top-up fees were introduced in England and Wales by a Commons majority of only 5.  The government had, effectively, relied on Scots MPs to get the legislation through, but the Scottish Parliament (thanks to a rebellion by Labour’s coalition partners the Liberal Democrats) had taken a different view on the same issue.  This meant that Scots MPs had voted to impose on England and Wales something that would not be imposed on their own constituents.

So far, so unfair.  But come with me now to 1988, and the Local Government Finance Act.  This was the law that established the much-hated Poll Tax (or Community Charge, if you prefer).  The Act was overwhelmingly rejected by Scottish MPs, meaning that the government had relied on English MPs to get the legislation through.  Despite this, the Act called for the new tax to be levied in Scotland from 1989, but in England and Wales from 1990.  This meant that, so far as the tax year 1989-90 was concerned, English MPs had voted to impose on Scotland something that would not be imposed on their own constituents.

There are, of course, differences between the two situations.  Most importantly, the anomaly with the Poll Tax was only to exist for one year, whereas the anomaly with student top-up fees was to persist indefinitely.  Another important difference, however, is that the decision to impose the Poll Tax in Scotland before it was imposed in England and Wales seemed to violate the spirit of the 1707 Act of Union, which established the UK as a single political entity.  The actual letter of the law had not been broken, since article 9 called only for taxes raised in England and Scotland to be ‘charged by the same Act’, and the arrangements for the tax in both parts of the UK were contained in the same piece of legislation.  Despite this, many Scots saw this as a betrayal of the underlying principle that England and Scotland were to be treated the same way with regard to taxation.

This feeling was particularly acute as it seemed to be part of a fundamental change in the relationship between England and Scotland.  Up to and including the 1979 election, political trends in England and Scotland had been, very broadly, similar.  In both countries, prosperous areas tended to vote Conservative, while more working-class areas tended to vote Labour.**  Similarly, the overall results of elections tended (again, in very broad terms) to switch between the parties in the same way in both countries.  Over the course of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, however, people in Scotland began to feel that she was governing in the exclusive interest of the south east of England, at the expense of those living elsewhere.

There were a number of factors that led Scots to feel this way.  One of these was the issue of money.  This is not something I want to get into in detail, as it would seem to be an area where the old maxim that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics applies with particular force.  So some people argue that England subsidises Scotland, because average expenditure per head of population in Scotland is higher than the average expenditure per head of population in England.  Others argue that, even with this ‘enhanced’ level of expenditure, Scotland in fact subsidises England, thanks in the main to North Sea oil revenues, which accrue to the Westminster exchequer, even though much of the oil is extracted from Scottish territorial waters.  Both sides of the debate are able to put forward official statistics that back their case (this is a reasonably good summary of the situation as it was in 2006).  It would seem that some detailed and rigorous academic work in this area is needed in order to clarify the situation, but it would also appear that such work has not yet been done.  This is why I choose to bracket it off in this discussion, except to note that it was, rightly or wrongly, the cause of a growing sense of grievance in Scotland during the 1980s and 90s.

A second cause of this sense of grievance was what was referred to as the ‘democratic deficit’.  This came about because, even when measures were to be applied equally across the UK, the majority of Scots MPs voted against them.  As you probably know, England and Scotland have maintained separate legal systems throughout the period of political union, and this means that, even when they were voted on at Westminster, separate Acts of Parliament were often required to introduce the same measures under the two separate legal systems.  During the 80s and 90s, much of this Scottish legislation could only be enacted thanks to the votes of English MPs.  This is not an exact reverse of the situation described in the West Lothian question, because Scots MPs had the opportunity to vote on whether or not similar proposals should apply in England (even though their votes made no difference to the outcome).  In practical terms, however, the result was not all that different – laws were being imposed on the people of Scotland without their consent.

Truthfully, the democratic deficit had been a structural problem with the UK parliament ever since it was first established.  It had always been possible for English MPs to out-vote their Scottish counterparts.  While the Scots thought of themselves as part of what was essentially one country, this wasn’t necessarily a problem.  Many people living in, say, Manchester would have been similarly opposed to much of Margaret Thatcher’s legislative programme, and their MPs probably voted against it, but because Mancunians thought of themselves as fellow-countrymen with people who lived in, say, Salisbury, the problem wasn’t thought about in nationalistic terms, but rather as a symptom of ‘the North/South divide’ within a single country.

But, because the old sense of England and Scotland as two nations under one parliament had always persisted, and was drawn attention to by things such as separate Acts of Parliament, a sense began to emerge in Scotland that the country was under a form of colonial rule, and that decisions which affected Scotland ought to be taken in Scotland.  As this view took hold, people expressed their concern by refusing to vote for Conservative candidates.  This then became a self-sustaining process in which concern over the democratic deficit caused people to turn against the Conservatives, which had the effect of worsening the democratic deficit, which caused more people to turn against the Conservatives – and so on.  The process reached its culmination in 1997, when Scotland returned no Conservative MPs to Westminster, something which would have been inconceivable a generation earlier.

Devolution was widely seen as the solution to the problem of the democratic deficit (even by some Conservatives, who hoped that devolution would reinvigorate the Scottish party, as it has – they now have 1 Westminster MP, and are the 3rd largest party in the Scottish Parliament).  Under devolution, many of the decisions affecting Scotland are now taken in Scotland, just as many had wanted, but this has created new structural problems.  So, for example, under the present arrangement (although there are proposals that this should change) the Scottish Parliament is responsible for popular things (spending money), but not for unpopular things (taking money away through taxes).  But probably the most significant structural problem, looking across the UK as a whole, is the West Lothian question.  As I mentioned away back in the early part of this post, the solution to the WLQ seems, at first glance, to be entirely straightforward – Scottish MPs should not vote on legislation that will not apply in Scotland.  But this solution creates new problems of its own.

So, for example, if Scottish MPs are not able to vote on English legislation, should they be involved in the scrutiny of it by means of debates in the Commons chamber and membership of select committees?  If they are not to be involved in scrutinising the bulk of the legislation that passes through Westminster, Scottish MPs are going to be a lot less busy than their English counterparts.  In these circumstances, would it be fair for them to continue to receive the same salary and expenses as their English counterparts?  If, on the other hand, they are to be paid pro rata for what will be a very part-time job, then can we be sure that high-calibre candidates will stand for election to Westminster?  Is it really in the interests of either Scotland or England to have decisions on important matters – foreign affairs, defence, most taxes, social security – made, in part, by less-than-stellar MPs?

Looking at the same problem another way, what would happen if we arrived at a situation where one party had a majority of English MPs, but another held the majority of all MPs?  This would mean that an administration would be in a position to pass all the legislation it wanted to regarding England, but would not be in a position to pass its budget – since this would contain measures that would affect both England and Scotland, MPs from both countries would be entitled to vote.  Given that the budget is usually regarded as a de facto confidence motion – that is, a government that cannot pass its budget is presumed not to have the confidence of MPs, and as such is forced to resign – this would mean that Scottish MPs would be in a position to force the collapse of the English government, or to win concessions on the basis of a threat to do so.  This would seem to be as profoundly undemocratic as the problem highlighted by the West Lothian question.

There are other problems that would result from having two tiers of MPs in the Commons.  Should Scottish MPs – and ‘second best’ MPs from other devolved territories – have the right to sit on the various business committees of the Commons, or to take key Commons offices like Speaker?  If they were allowed to hold such offices, much of the business they would be involved in would not directly affect them, but if they were excluded from holding them it would mean they were denied the opportunity to take charge of matters that did affect them.  It would seem, on the one hand, that English MPs (and the English population at large) would be likely to regard MPs from devolved territories holding such offices as, at best, unfair.  On the other hand, it would seem equally likely that MPs from devolved parts of the UK (and the populations at large) would regard wholesale exclusion as equally unfair.

This same problem is even more significant when it comes to the matter of forming governments.  It would seem reasonable to regard certain Westminster cabinet positions – essentially those such as Education Secretary, Health Secretary etc that have equivalents in the devolved administrations – as rightfully belonging to English MPs.  But what would happen with regard to cabinet positions that are not duplicated, or not fully duplicated, within the devolved administrations?  Such positions would include Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary, but also some positions which have a dual responsibility, with some parts of their duties relating only to England, and others relating to the whole of the UK.  Take the Home Secretary for example – much of this job is concerned with matters relating to English criminal law, but the Home Secretary is also responsible for coordinating and directing the security services (MI5, MI6 etc) across the whole of the UK.  Take the Chancellor of the Exchequer as another example – part of this job concerns apportioning expenditure to various English departments, but the Chancellor is also responsible for setting tax and excise rates across the whole of the UK, and for deciding what proportion of tax revenues are distributed to the devolved administrations in the form of a block grant.

If these split-responsibility offices went always to English MPs then this would create an unjust situation in which Scots were told that matters relating to taxation, customs, excise, and anti-terror activities were to be decided at Westminster, but no Scot (or, more accurately, no person elected by Scottish voters) would ever be permitted to exercise this authority.  If, on the other hand, these positions were to be open to all MPs (as positions such as Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary presumably would be) then this would result in a situation that would closely parallel the West Lothian question – an MP elected by Scottish people, and who cannot therefore be directly voted out of office by English electors, would be exercising authority over England.  Even more bizarrely, a Scottish MP holding the office of Home Secretary would find him or herself unable to vote for much of the legislation they had themselves proposed.

Clearly such a situation would prove unsustainable in the long term.  There is an obvious solution to part of the problem, and that is to create new UK-wide offices to handle those parts of the various jobs that are not handled by the devolved administrations.  This would be a relatively easy matter with regard to the Home Secretary, but might be rather more difficult with the Chancellor – the co-ordination of economic policy might prove problematic if one person were responsible for controlling revenue and another expenditure.  Even if this strategy were adopted there would still be an anomaly, in that if a Scottish MP were appointed to any Cabinet position, they would not be able to vote for the majority of the English government’s legislative programme.  Would this really be sustainable in the long term – to have prominent government frontbenchers unable to support the government?

This problem is particularly acute with regard to the Prime Minister.  Given the increasingly ‘presidential’ style of UK politics, there can be little doubt that the PM is no longer (if they ever were) simply the chairman of the cabinet.  Most people would accept that, with the exception of very weak Prime Ministers like Gordon Brown, the PM is the ultimate authority within government.  They have the right to hire and fire all ministers, and as such can control every aspect of policy.  Given this, it would seem that a consequence of Scottish MPs losing the right to vote on English-only matters would be that no Scottish MP could ever become Prime Minister.

Partly this would be for reasons of fairness – the English would seem to be unlikely to tolerate a non-English MP controlling and directing English legislation.  It would also be a matter of simple practicalities – it would clearly be unsustainable to have a Prime Minister who created a piece of legislation, argued passionately for it to the public, but was then unable to vote for it in the Commons.  On the other hand, given the decisive role the PM plays in shaping policy made by all his or her ministers, permanently excluding all Scottish MPs from becoming Prime Minister would be unlikely to be tolerated by the Scots.  This would mean, after all, a situation in which the populations of devolved territories within the UK had become, in political terms, permanent second-class citizens – key aspects of authority would be wielded over Scotland by the UK Prime Minister, but no Scot could ever become PM.  This really would be a form of colonial rule.

There is a solution to all of this, and that is to create a devolved English parliament, with equivalent rights and responsibilities to the Scottish parliament, and an English government with equivalent powers to the Scottish government.  Under such a system, Scots would decide most of what happened in Scotland, the English would decide most of what happened in England (and the Welsh and Northern Irish would have similar powers).  The UK parliament would exist only to address those questions that affected the whole of the UK, and all members of it would be of equal importance, irrespective of which part of the UK they came from.  On the face of it this would seem to be an entirely fair and equitable solution, but there are problems with it, nonetheless.

There is, for example, a question as to whether the English actually want such a system to be put in place.  There are certainly those who campaign for an English parliament, but they are not as yet a majority.  Something which might contribute to the unpopularity of such a system is that it would mean that in some parts of England there would be seven layers of political administration – Parish Council, District Council, County Council, Regional Assembly,*** English parliament, UK parliament, European parliament.  Many people might be inclined to feel that such a proliferation of government was not a good thing, and that it was likely to result in a vast and expensive bureaucracy.  This feeling might be particularly intense with regard to the UK parliament, since it would have comparatively few powers, and this might, paradoxically, hasten the demand for full independence on both sides of the England/ Scotland border.

There would also be the question of where the UK parliament would meet, and where the UK government would be situated.  If the Parliament and government were to be permanently sited in one country, it would seem highly likely that the populations of the other countries would object – the parliament would be funded by UK-wide taxes, and it would seem likely that there would be objections if all of that money were to be spent in one part of the UK.  If, on the other hand, the UK parliament is to rotate between each of the separate devolved territories, then there will be significant additional costs involved.  This will obviously be particularly acute if purpose-built chambers are created in each country, but even if existing facilities were borrowed or hired there will be a need for duplicate staffs – it would not be reasonable to expect civil servants to relocate their families every time the parliament moves on.  The experience of the European parliament suggests that peripatetic parliaments are not very cost-effective, to put it mildly.

The truth is that all of the questions I have raised in the course of this post are to a very large extent unanswerable.  The ‘democratic deficit’ between Scotland and England is an unavoidable structural consequence of a unified parliament governing two countries, one of which has a substantially smaller population than the other.  Devolution to the less populous of the two countries has helped to correct the democratic deficit, but this has created a different but no less serious  problem, which has been highlighted as the West Lothian question.  There are various possible answers to the West Lothian question, as we have seen, but each of these creates further problems.

The fundamental problem, I think, is that the UK just isn’t, and never was, a proper country.  The UK was formed, essentially, because Scotland’s attempts to create an overseas empire of its own failed.  This made access to England, and especially to English colonies and ‘plantations’ abroad, an economic necessity for Scotland.  England, in turn, benefited in power and prestige thanks to a major expansion of the territory that fell under the jurisdiction of the parliament and government at Westminster.  If you read the Act of Union, it’s astonishing how much of it is concerned with trade and other financial matters.  Billy Bragg’s line in ‘Take Down the Union Jack’, that the UK is ‘just an economic union that’s passed it’s sell-by date’, really does seem justified.

Scotland and England are, and always were, separate countries, albeit ones that have had a long (and sometimes violent) relationship with each other.  The extent of the movement of the population between the two countries is such that they are always going to be close allies, but there seems little doubt, to me, that the period of time when England and Scotland’s interests were best served by political union is drawing to a close.  There will continue to be close links between the two countries – both countries seem to want to retain the present monarchy (which makes me despair, but never mind that), and also we share a land border with each other.  But it seems to me that it’s no longer a question of if Scotland (or England, if you prefer to think of it that way round) will become independent, but rather when.  The current economic difficulties seem to have diminished the demand for change within Scotland, but there still seems no doubt to me that the change is coming, whether we are sad or glad about that.


* – Ok, so technically those words were spoken at the start of the first session of the parliament on the 12th May 1999, and the anniversary I’m commemorating is when the parliament formally received its legislative powers.  But that’s just hair-splitting (said the usually-a-dedicated-hair-splitter Aethelread…).

** – This had begun to change during the 1970s, when there was a surge of support for the Scottish National Party, but it still held broadly true.

*** – Regional Assemblies are to be phased out next year, but many of their functions are to be passed to Regional Development Agencies, so this layer of political administration will persist in a different form..

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3 Responses to The West Lothian question

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  3. Very interesting. My erudite contribution is that I don’t really give a shit:). I’m going to forward this link to someone from West Lothian who I believe is a policy implementation officer for that county council, I think you and her could have an interesting discussion.

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