West Lothian re-visited

I have just come across an interesting post and discussion on The Sharpener going back to last November about the West Lothian question — why should a Scottish MP speak and vote in the House of Commons on subjects such as education which have been devolved to the Scottish parliament and which are no longer the responsibility of the House of Commons in respect of Scotland? This question will become even more relevant if and when Gordon Brown, representing a Scottish constituency, becomes prime minister at Westminster. As the Sharpener’s discussion shows, the Tories’ proposed solution to West Lothian is nonsensical, and neither the LibDems nor the Labour Party seem to have an answer at all.

In fact the answer stares us in the face, as I have ventured to point out in a comment on the Sharpener discussion:

The principal, perhaps the only, obstacle to recognising the answer to the West Lothian Question is the extraordinary national blockage about federalism. By the same token, the issue here is not so much what system we should introduce to make sense of West Lothian: it’s understanding what system we have already got, and then making sensible provision accordingly.

What we now have as a result of devolution (active or dormant) in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London is a federal system. The inescapable logic of this is that the national parliament at Westminster has got to become the federal parliament, with powers limited to those subjects not devolved to the regions, or shared with them. The present anomalies discussed in these comments and this post arise from the attempt to make the Westminster parliament function as both a national federal parliament and a parliament for England, simultaneously. This is unsustainable — and will become more obviously so when a Scottish MP, Gordon Brown, representing a constituency in a country with its own devolved parliament, becomes the federal prime minister of the whole of GB and NI. It can only be a matter of time — probably a long time, given the British preference for muddling through and ignoring anomalies rather than facing up to the logical and imperative need for further change — before we (or our great-grandchildren) bite the bullet, and after extended agonising and obfuscation, draw up a proper written federal constitution, establish one or more parliaments and executives for England, decide on a sensible distribution of powers as between the federal centre and the regions, including some shared powers, and stop fussing about all members of the federal parliament at Westminster (ie the House of Commons and the federal Senate) being entitled to speak and vote on all matters within federal competence. If countries such as Australia, the US, Germany and Canada can make a federal system work either very or tolerably well most of the time, there’s no possible reason why we can’t learn to do so too.

All ’solutions’ to the West Lothian Question that seek to dodge or ignore this now actually existing federal reality, and its implications, are doomed to get us into an even bigger muddle than we’re in already, as the preceding discussion shows.

It’s all there on a recent post on my blog


2 Responses

  1. Ed Davies says:

    Sensible comment, but I thought NI was in the UK – “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” it says on the cover of my passport. Maybe you meant GB and NI.

    Brian writes: Quite right! Thanks. I have changed it. I was writing too late at night, obviously.

  2. Aidan says:

    I think your suggestion is the most logical and reasonable answer, but given that any English assembly would be very significantly more Tory than the Commons, I can’t see Labour being prepared to hand over any powers to it.

    It would presumably be possible for the English assembly to be integrated into the Commons – ie the English MPs are automatically the English assembly, but they would need to choose their own ministers and generate their own legislation, rather than it coming from the UK government.

    Brian comments: I don’t think you could make a federal system work with members of the federal-level legislature doubling as the members of one (but only one) of the legislatures of the regions. They would be dealing with quite different subjects in each of their two capacities, and it would unbalance the system if only one of the regions were to be represented in this way. Moreover it would be an essential feature of the system that each of the regions would elect its legislators and governments on an electoral system chosen by the electorate of that region, quite likely to be different from the federal electoral system, and cerrtainly holding their elections on a different timetable. And, finally, I think the likeliest solution to the disparity in sizes between England and all the rest would be to split England into three or four separate regions, as generally envisaged in devolution plans. I suspect popular objections to one or more devolved parliaments and governments in England would rapidly vanish once it became clear that they would have responsibility for almost all aspects of public life — education, health, crime, policing, most taxes, utilities, etc. — apart from foreign affairs and defence.

    I agree that a Labour government at Westminster would be reluctant to introduce a system which might well entail one or more legislatures and governments in England with Conservative majorities, although if England were to be divided into several separate regions, some at least would probably tend to have Labour governments and parliaments — e.g. some in the north of England, and London, unless of course Mr Blair has succeeded in completely wrecking the Labour Party by the time of the next election, in which case there may not be Labour majorities anywhere. Otherwise we would all have to get used to the idea that there would be parliaments and governments of different political hues (including Lib Dems) pursuing different policies across a range of important subjects in different parts of the country. Very healthy and very democratic. It sounds like cloud cuckoo-land, but actually we are more than half-way there already: it only requires imagination and determination to finish the job.