Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Question?

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.


  1. If it's an argument about who controls the United Kingdom, then I guess you can say that the English, due to numerical superiority, are in charge. But English MPs do not vote as a national bloc, to do so would undermine the working of the United Kingdom Parliament and the United Kingdom itself. The House divides on party lines, not national lines.

    But I'm not interested in that argument. I want democracy and proper accountability. I want MPs elected on an English mandate (not MPs elected to a British parliament on a British mandate/manifesto) deciding on England-only domestic affairs. I want representatives and a parliament that speaks of, to and for England. I want a national conversation of England's governance and a referendum on an English parliament, I want to be consulted just as the Scots and Welsh have been.

    David Cameron recent speech on public services and the Big Society contained 18 instances of the phrase 'our public services', 4 instances of 'our country' and 2 mentions of 'our schools' (not to mention 'our schools and hospitals', 'our universities', 'our teaching hospitals and universities', 'our children', 'our health outcomes', 'our society', 'public services in our country' and 'our Foundation hospitals'). Britain was mentioned 4 times and Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Poland, Germany, France, New York and Shanghai were all mentioned once, yet there was no mention of England, the country directly affected by Cameron's Big Society and his reforms to public services.

    And Gordon Brown was even worse than David Cameron. England needs politicians that speak for England, we're no different from Scotland or Wales in that respect.

  2. The irrefutable fact is the English are the only ones constantly left out of the devolution debate.

    Every reputable poll has shown that 60%+ of English people want an English Parliament.

    England will never be permitted to have more spending per capita than another nation comprising the United Kingdom. This is why England was bust up into regions, that the English are expressly against.

    The English are targetted for erasure by the British, wherever in the world those British are born.

    I'm English not British and I want England out of the thieving UK.

  3. So you are a supporter of Top Up Fees for English Students then are you? Have you forgotten how many votes that passed by? Are you aware how many of those votes vital to the passing of this controversial legislation were actually those very same Scottish MPs who are not accountable to the English people they forced this legislation on. Education being a devolved issue.

    You unionists are loosing the high ground, and now it becomes your challenge to sell the benefits of this disunion to those same English that are turning away from it.

    Because if they decide they want out of the union, it will mean the biggest suppliers of the cookies in the jar you keep sticking you hands in (around 85% of all government taxes are raised in England)- will take their chocolate biscuits selfishly for themselves.

  4. Gareth,
    You seem to think that the Barnett formula whereby Scotland, Wales and N Ireland receiving as percentage based on English spending is something to with devolution. It is not. It certainly needs reform, as those in Wales are well aware.
    You repeat the usual 'mantra' yourself that England has a huge majority in the number of MPs at Westminster. Like all the other MPs at Westminister, they are UK MPs. Unlike MPs from Scotland. Wales and N Ireland however they hold no brief to push England's interests - often it is quite the reverse. And those MPs of course vote on party lines so the English do not always get their way even on English issues. English MPs voted against top-up tuition fees in England but the legislation was carried by Scottish Labour MPs (to whom it did not apply). Another example was the proposed third runway at Heathrow. The Tory amendment rejecting it would have been carried had not Mr Brown called on his Scottish Labour contingent to vote with him 'so as not to destabilise the Government".
    Whatever the best solution to the 'English Question' may, there is no democratic justification for allowing MPs from outside England to determine English health, education, transport (even forestry) policies.

  5. Yes you are right, the UK Government does hold all the purse strings and it decides that England should receive at least £1,000 per head less than elsewhere in the UK. It has also decided that the bulk of the coming cuts should be in England, hence English students and nowhere else will lose their EMA and be deterred from university by the thought of crippling debts. Tuition fees were forced on England in the first place by Scottish Labour MPs who wouldn't countenance them for their own. There are no 'English' MPs standing up for England against this discrimination, only MPs elected by the English but who put the UK before England, whereas Scotland, Wales & NI MPs stand up for their constituents only. Why should the English not expect the same? To say that 117 Scottish, Welsh and NI MPs are dwarfed is not the point, they should not be allowed to vote on leglislation which does not affect their constituents. England had to suffer a Scottish PM who had pledged to put Scotland first. This argument has gone well beyond the West Lothian Question, England needs it's own parliament but of course as we have no MPs to represent England's interests, no-one is listening.

  6. Well, most of the comments feel that England is hard done by, a view that I don't personally share. However, I have no problem with there being an English Parliament within a Federal or even Confederal system of government on these Islands. Then all the countries could have real home rule.

  7. The corollary to the West Lothian question in these days of Devolution is why should UK Ministers (education, health, etc) whose portfolios only affect England sit in the UK cabinet, participating in decisions that affect all of us?

    By the way - I know that the same applies to our Secretaries of state as well, but after March - given a YES vote - it is questionable whether we need on anyway!

  8. And should Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs be barred from most Government (and Cabinet) jobs because most portfolios are English-only or English-mainly?

  9. It seems it is very easy for all the above commentators to forget that 'part of England' namely the Celtic nation and Duchy of Cornwall has expressed a desire for devolution and a Cornish assembly. We gathered a petition of 50,000 signatures in one summer calling for a referendum on a Cornish assembly after opinion polls in the Duchy put support at over 55%. New Labour (along with many 'friends' in Wales and Scotland) simply ignored it.

  10. I have no real problem with the principle of asyemetric devolution given the very different politics in the four entities. But I should like to see the UK Parliament call the separatists bluff by legislating that in the event of a referendum on secession being held in any of the other constituent parts of the UK it would be paralelled by a referendum on whether England itself should quit the Union.

    I detect little real political pressure for an English Parliament and EVEL is probably unworkable in practice. It is quite obvious that if there really was a heartfelt popular desire for English devolution, as there was in Scotland in the early nineties, it would happen. The fact is that political parties that fail to pay attention to English opinion are unlikely ever to get their hands on government. There is no 'English problem' unless or until the people of England decide that there is an injustice and demand that it be addressed - at which point the major parties will be compelled to address the issue or kiss goodbye to their ambitions to govern.