Wednesday, 2 February 2011
When political hacks get together over a meal some interesting and not so interesting topics come up. Last night was a classic example. The occasion a farewell dinner to a beloved colleague and amongst all the merriment the vexed question of the West Lothian question raised its head.
Now quite how the topic came up is a mystery but come up it did. And undoubtedly, before the end of this referendum campaign it would be a brave man not to wager on someone raising the issue.
The question was first raised before the 1979 referenda in Scotland and Wales. The referendum that was narrowly won in Scotland but failed on a turnout test. And the proposition was heavily defeated in Wales.
At the time there was a large rump of Labour Members of Parliament that were opposed to devolution. One such was Tam Dalyell MP, who was a member for the Scottish constituency of West Lothian.
During the campaign he posed the question was it right that a Scottish MP at Westminster after devolution could vote upon matters such as education affecting English seats - but that same MP could not vote on such matters affecting his own constituency because they would have been devolved to a Scottish Parliament.
Now it is true that Dalyell and his ilk in Scotland and in Wales Kinnock, Abse and others in the Parliamentary Labour party were more concerned about their position in Westminster than the ‘English’ question as such.
The question keeps coming back as if the English are in some ways disadvantaged by the devolution settlement. The problem is that if you repeat an assertion often enough it becomes conventional wisdom.
The die hard Unionists in our two largest parties trot out West Lothian as a kind of mantra that the poor English voter is profoundly disadvantaged. Somehow those people living in Wales with their limited law making powers are doing their nice English neighbours down. But is it true?
In raw terms, England still hold the best cards. First might is right. The Parliament in Westminster is controlled by 533 MPs elected to represent English constituents. A figure that dwarfs the numbers from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which total a mere 117. A ratio of over 4 to 1. A ratio that is about to go up if the government get their way on reducing the number of MPs. Indeed, it could be argued that the concomitant cut in Welsh and Scottish MPs at Westminster brings a relative strengthening of England's position.
Secondly, the UK government hold the purse strings. Those 533 English MPs decide how much money goes to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Put another way they decide on the the pocket money but the offspring can spend it as they want.
What seems always to be forgotten by those that push the Dalyell case that it is the English majority that decide on the priorities of expenditure in England and no amount of interference from the rest can interfere with these priorities.
Of course, there will always be tensions between central and devolved governments. These tensions will be particularly acute when there are different parties running the show in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast.
But to argue the case that in some ways the poor English are disadvantaged is pure fiction and is laughable. So for heaven’s sake, let’s strike the West Lothian question from our constitutional debates. And hacks on their night out can discuss more important questions, like the off-side rule.