Europe / United Kingdom

The West Lothian Question: What’s the difference between “English” & “British”?

The recent referendum in Scotland raised some important questions about devolution, the process of Westminster gradually granting what former Prime Minister William Gladstone called “home rule” to Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. For instance, what does it mean to be British –a word too often used synonymously with “English”- and what justification would be needed to leave the United Kingdom? As an American, I can understand why ideals should sometimes supersede economic issues when it comes to independence from England. But while the Scots were voting to allow Westminster’s continued supremacy over the Scottish Parliament, appeased by the promise of even more devolved power, a similar question was being raised down South: the “West Lothian Question”.

The West Lothian question, originally raised by the Scottish Member of Parliament (MP) Tam Dalyell from West Lothian in 1977, addresses a peculiar result of devolution in the UK that is infrequently debated. During devolution, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland received national legislative power for their respective assemblies and parliaments, which were elected, of course, by only their own constituencies. Their powers vary from legislation that required Parliament’s approval, to power over almost everything not explicitly reserved for Westminster. However, during this time period, England received no such increase in national autonomy, or even a national assembly of its own. Although England has more seats in Parliament than any other country in the UK, the influence of Scottish MPs alone is considerable. Scotland’s long animosity towards Conservatives provides so much support to Labour that the removal of Scottish and Welsh MPs would guarantee Conservative governments for the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, the recent controversial decisions to establish foundation hospitals and to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 (US$15,000) applied only to England and English universities; however, Scottish MPs were decisive in both votes, which would have failed if voting had been restricted only to MPs whose constituents were actually affected by it. The controversy generated by these policies, combined with the recent media focus on whether Scotland has enough autonomy, prompted David Cameron to say what many in England were feeling, “We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must be heard,” and subsequently appoint Robert Smith to head a commission to develop proposals for constitutional reform.
The current proposals for resolving the imbalance of Scottish representation in English lawmaking without reciprocity fall into three categories: English votes for English laws, devolving England, and reversing or adapting to devolution. The English-votes solutions include a system of “double-majority voting”, requiring a majority of all the MPs followed by a majority of only English MPs for all laws the affected only England. Also in this category was the proposal for an English Grand Committee, similar to Scotland’s and Wales’, that would discuss and vote on English-related laws on its own to prevent the creation of two tiers of MPs.
Proposals of English devolution range from the moderate proposals of creation of a separate English parliament that would mirror the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Irish National Assemblies, while preserving Westminster as a federal parliament, or regional assemblies with greater power to local governments in England, to the more radical proposals of dissolving the United Kingdom altogether to produce four entirely independent nations. Conversely, proposals to adapt devolution include reducing the number of Scottish MPs. Most outlandish are proposals to reverse devolution by abolishing the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish National Assemblies.
While we should keep in mind that some of the proposals are too extreme to be worth considering, analysis of the above proposals is as follows: reversing devolution is out of the question because the very idea would infuriate the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish, without actually granting more local powers to the English. English devolution is risky because by choosing further devolution as the solution for problems of earlier devolution, the UK providing too much momentum to a process that requires moderation if it is to not break up the union. It is possible that regional assemblies without legislative power and more autonomy for English cities, proposals that Labour has expressed interest in, would provide a feasible, if incomplete solution, because Labour’s precarious support within England makes it difficult for them to find agreement with the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition on structural reform. Perhaps the most realistic answer to the West Lothian Question is an English Grand Committee, one of the few compromises that the coalition is willing to concede. Although this “East Lothian Answer” would be unfavorable to Labour, it would hopefully also redefine “British” as what it should mean: English, Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish united as one.