The West Lothian Question Explained
With the fallout surrounding Scotland’s decision to remain within the UK and the big three parties all promising what has been referred to as ‘devo-max’, the state of the British parliament has been thrown in to some considerable doubt. Most of the popular debate has been focussed around the so called ‘West Lothian’ question and David Cameron’s promise to finally tackle the tricky question. The only problem is, what does the West Lothian question actually refer to?
The question was originally posed in 1977 by Tam Dalyell, a British Labour Party politician and then MP for the Scottish town West Lothian. At the time, the UK government were pondering whether or not to establish a devolved Scottish government, so that they might make policy decision separate from the wider UK parliament. This would, of course, mean that MPs from England, Ireland and Wales could not vote on Scottish only matters. In an odd twist, it also meant that Scottish MPs could still vote on English only matters because none of the other home nations had a devolved parliament of their own, their issues would be solved by the larger UK parliament, where Scottish votes would still count. By the time the Scottish and Welsh parliaments were established in the late nineties, this ‘West Lothian’ question had gone from purely theoretical to a deeply troubling reality.
Since then, there have been two votes in the UK parliament on issues that didn’t relate to Scotland, but which Scottish MPs could vote on. These issues regarded foundation hospitals and raising the tuition fees for students in England. On both issues, Scottish MPs votes pushed the papers through and ensured that they became law, despite the fact that neither of these issues had anything to do with Scotland in the first place.
Today, we stand promising Scotland complete autonomy in relation to tax raising powers, and yet because we lack a dedicated England only parliament, MPs from all over the UK have the power to vote for issues which don’t regard them. There are several solutions to this problem, none of which are particularly comprehensive or easy. One option is the so called ‘double majority’ system, in which laws that affect England alone would require approval by both the entire UK parliament and the English MPs sitting there. Another is to cut the number of MPs from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales that are sent to the UK parliament, this would give them less sway over English matters, but still give them a say over general UK policy. Finally, there is the opportunity to establish a separate British parliament, in which only British MPs would sit on issues that only relate to them. Critics of this proposal suggest it would cause yet more bureaucratic red tape and many arguments would be had over which policies were, in effect, isolated from the wider UK community.
For decades this question has hung over the heads of political thinkers and there still exists no clear answer to the solution. What is now clear though is that with the upcoming devo-max deal for Scotland and the question coming further into focus, we’re going to have to find some sort of solution.
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