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The answer to the West Lothian Question is to stop asking it

23 August 2013

11:45 AM

23 August 2013

11:45 AM

Here we go again. It’s time for an English parliament! Actually, it’s time for a new Act of Union! Says who? Says Michael Fabricant in today’s Telegraph. Mark Wallace at ConservativeHome agrees English votes for English laws! 

Well, fine. It’s a respectable, even laudable, view. But, as we shall see, it is not a very conservative view at all. It may be rational but that alone should be make Tories sceptical of its merits. At best the creation of an “English parliament” within Westminster solves one small anomaly at the cost of creating another, much larger, one.

In any case, Fabricant has his history wrong. For instance, he writes that:

My constituents see their health and education services voted on by MPs who, because of devolution, are completely unaffected by that legislation. While there isn’t an appetite for yet another tier of government in the form of a separate parliament, there is a demand for only English MPs to be able to vote on English laws.

Emphasis added. But this has always been the case. Scottish MPs have voted on matters that did not affect their constituents for decades. For the most part, all devolution did was put parliamentary clothes on the skeleton of long-existing administrative devolution. There is no British health service or British education system. A Scottish MP voting on an English education bill in 1980 was no more affected by that legislation than one voting on an education bill in 2010.

What devolution did do was make it impossible for English MPs to pass legislation that only affected Scotland in areas such as health or education. The arithmetic is simple: there may occasionally be times when Scottish MPs make the difference to votes on bills affecting only England; before devolution English MPs could always  – if they were so minded – “over-rule” the wishes of Scottish MPs on bills affecting only Scotland.

Now you can argue that this did not matter much in the pre-devolution age since there was but one elected legislature on these islands (though, as so often, there was a Stormont exception too).  The government was elected to govern all parts of the United Kingdom and it did not matter if it did not command a majority in each part of the realm. That, in fact, was the Tory argument. It was tenable, though also unpopular. It was all part-and-parcel of the crazy, often anomalous, British way of doing things.

Back then Scotland was “over-represented” at Westminster. And, I think, reasonably so (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?) That is no longer the case. So the likelihood of Scottish votes determining English laws is already much reduced.

But it takes no great powers of imagination or analysis to see how unworkable an English parliament is. Suppose you did create one and only English MPs could vote on so-called English laws? What would happen?

Well, you might easily find yourself in a position in which the government enjoyed a majority when considering health and education but in a minority whenever attention turned to defence, foreign affairs, welfare or the budget. There are, you see, relatively few English-only matters. It is hard to see how this guaranteed instability would be an improvement upon the present state of affairs even if you take seriously the hypothetical possibility of England being “governed by Scotland”.

Now it is true that matters could be arranged differently. Real Home Rule – or devo-max – might change things. Fiscal autonomy for Scotland (a good idea!) would reduce the need for equal Scottish representation at Westminster. But it would not remove the need for that representation. Foreign policy – including european policy – and defence would remain matters for Westminster alone.

It is true that people have sometimes wondered what might happen if “England says No”. Well, I can tell you what will happen: Alex Salmond and the nationalists will win more votes in next year’s referendum than they might otherwise have done. John Wilkes’s descendants are recruiting sergeants for nationalists north and south of the border.

So be careful what you wish for. Logic – or at least a superficial consideration of the matter – might support the creation of an English parliament but when was logic ever supposed to govern Toryism? At best, Fabricant’s notions solve one tiny and rare problem while, almost certainly, creating a much larger and more common difficulty. There are any number of things in the British constitution that make no sense; fixating on one small example of this at the expense of the bigger picture makes no sense either.

I realise that this is unsatisfactory. So be it. So are many other things. The best – if still imperfect – answer to the West Lothian Question is simply to stop asking it. Ignoring it won’t make it go away but leaving it alone causes less trouble than addressing it. And first, do no harm is supposed to be a Tory principle.

There is no pressing need to address this issue anyway. Not least since it is plainly an attempt by Conservative backbenchers to mess with the constitution for purely partisan advantage. This too will cause more trouble than it is worth.

Perhaps Michael Fabricant is intensely relaxed by the prospect of helping Alex Salmond but he might pause to reflect if that is what he really wishes to achieve.


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