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What is the West Lothian Question? 

An important consequence of devolution was raised by Tam Dalyell, the MP for the Scottish constituency of West Lothian during the debates on the referendums in the 1970s.  The Westminster Parliament would no longer deal with issues such as education or health that only affected Scotland or Wales, because these matters had been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and so Westminster MPs, whether from England, Scotland or Wales would not be voting on them. However, matters affecting health or education in England are not devolved but still decided at Westminster where Scottish and Welsh MPs, not chosen by the English electorate, would be able to vote on them.

It is a constitutional issue that also has a party political dimension.  Between 1997 and 2015, Labour had the great majority of MPs in Scotland and also has more Welsh MPs than the other parties.  This means that a Labour Government can whip its Scottish and Welsh MPs to vote for legislation affecting England, even when a majority of English MPs are against it. This happened in 2003 when there was a major rebellion of Labour MPs against their Government’s proposals for foundation hospitals.  English MPs voted by a majority of 1 against the proposal but Labour Scottish and Welsh MPs saw the legislation through. The same happened when the Labour Government wanted to raise tuition fees to £3000 a year, a proposal that was passed with the help of Scottish Labour MPs even though the Scottish Government had decided against tuition fees in Scotland.

The Conservative Party has proposed ‘English votes for English laws’ since 2001 and the present Conservative Government is proposing that only English MPs will be able to vote on matters affecting only England.  Deciding what is an English issue is not always easy though.  The SNP has a policy of not voting on English issues, but in the 2003 vote on foundation hospitals did take part because funding the NHS in England might have an effect on the overall financial settlement for Scotland and because some Scottish people would cross the border to be treated in English hospitals and vice versa. Having voting only by English MPs on some issues would also be the first time in the history of Parliament that there were two sets of MPs with different rights.  There could also be potential conflict in the future between a Conservative majority of MPs in England and a non-Conservative national government. The McKay Commission, appointed by the Coalition Government, proposed that there should be a vote of English MPs so that their views are known followed by a vote of all MPs.  Another solution, of course, is to have an English Parliament to which English issues are devolved to the same extent that they are in Scotland and Wales but it is not certain that there is political support for this and it has major overall constitutional implications.

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  • DID YOU KNOW? Lord Michael Dobbs, once adviser to Margaret Thatcher wrote House of Cards, now starring Kevin Spacey.

 

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