Friday, 9 September 2011

The English want an answer

So the English question is to be addressed. A small group of independent experts are to look at the “West Lothian Question”.

To those with long memories will remember that the 1979 devolution referenda split the Labour party both in Wales and Scotland.

In Wales the notable “no” campaigners were Leo Abse and Neal Kinnock and in Scotland one of those opposed to a devolved Scotland was the ex-Etonian Labour MP Tam Dalyell who at the time represented the Scottish seat of West Lothian in the UK Parliament. 

He posed the question if English MPs were no longer allowed to have a say in devolved matters in the two countries was it right that Scottish and Welsh MPs continue to have a role and say on English only matters. The “West Lothian Question” was born and become part of the world of constitutional nerds from that day on.

Of course, both countries in 1979 failed to secure the required number of votes to establish Parliaments in Wales and Scotland. Shortly afterwards the Conservative Party under Mrs Thatcher kicked out Mr Callaghan out of Downing Street and Labour out of Government for eighteen years. The “Question” for eighteen years needn’t be asked.

But back came devolved government with the return of Labour. Successful referenda were held and won and new Governments were set up in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Low and behold Conservative MPs started to whinge about the settlement and the West Lothian question raised its head again.

Mr Cameron promised to address it if he became Prime Minister hence yesterday’s announcement by Cabinet Office Minister Mark Harper.

In announcing the terms of reference Mr Harper said that the Commission’s primary task “should be to examine how Parliament can deal most effectively with business that affects England wholly or primarily, when at the same time similar matters in some or all of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are the responsibility of separate parliaments or assemblies.”

Now it is quite possible that the Commission will produce a modest report that involves some technical conventions that some MPs refrain from exercising their rights to vote on certain English only matters. If that happened it would be a mistake and a lost opportunity.

What is needed is a proper look at relationships between the four countries of these islands to look at the constitutional settlement now that the Celtic countries have a measure of home rule.

Indeed a move to a Federal United Kingdom might even become a reality. It is not completely bonkers an idea to envisage Cameron campaigning on such a platform as an alternative to Scottish independence.

It looks as if an answer to Tam Dalyell’s question will be provided some 35 years later. Whether it is the answer he would have wanted is of course, another question.


  1. Interestingly, I wonder why you refer to Scotland as a Celtic country? There may well be a majority of Celts but there are also a lot of proud non-Celts.

    It is this acceptance 'of difference' that makes Scotland what it is today.

    If only Wales and the Welsh had such foresight.

  2. There has to be a recognition of the fact that Devolution is an ongoing process and that the Elephant in the room is the democratic deficit with regards to England and of course Kernow (Cornwall).
    England needs its own parliament to debate and decide on England only issues. Likewise Kernow should also be given the chance to decide its own destiny. Unionists can only stick their head in the sand for so long before the need for air becomes critical.
    Now is that time but I think the powers that be will try to kick the issue into the long grass. I hope the English and Cornish do not allow that to happen!

  3. You can be sure, if Westminister/Cameron offers Wales more power as part of the federalisation of the UK Carwyn Jones and 'Welsh' Labour will be against it.

    Like Carwyn was against giving the Assembly power over too much energy creating capacity last week.

    We'll get more power but not with Labour's help.

  4. Federalism is not a workable solution for the UK. The inbalance between England and the others is too great.

    Take an issue such as Iraq or Afghanistan for example, were defence foreign policy reserved to the federal legislature, and the Scots and or the Welsh voted against participation in the conflict(s).. they would be outvoted every time by the English members. Neither would a veto be practical, as that would result in English opinion being defeated.

    The outcome of federalism would be the inevitable break-up of the UK. That is why the unionists (Labour and Tories, and no doubt the LIbDems too if it came to the crunch) are opposed to the idea. It is why the West Lothian question is unlikely to be addressed in any meaningful way. Cameron's proposals are likely to kick it into the long grass for a while, at least until its clear what happens in Scotland.