Wednesday 20 August 2014

The West Lothian Question, take two

Tam Dalyell. Photograph: The Hootsmon
Back in 1977 that famous old-Etonian, Sir Thomas Dalyell Loch, 11th Baronet of the Binns, famously asked a question which has troubled his party ever since.

The question, in his own words, was this:
For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate ... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
Those 'honourable' members - better known here in Scotland as the 'feeble fifty' - have indeed had a decisive effect on English politics. It was with their votes that Tony Blair imposed tuition fees on English university students, foundation hospitals on the English NHS. I believe that it is true that Labour did not have a majority of English MPs on either of those votes - which affected only England.

This is, as Tam pointed out, an untenable anomaly: frankly, a corrupt practice. And the answer to his question seems to be 'not much longer'.

So, what's the corollary to the West Lothian Question?

Well, suppose the present government were to enact - as it's entirely reasonable that they should - that Scottish MPs may no longer vote on English matters. And suppose - I know it's unlikely - that Scotland votes 'no' in a month's time. And suppose - just suppose - Ed Miliband wins the next Westminster election, but without a majority of English seats.

Who then is the English Secretary of State for Health? For Education? For the Environment? for Transport? for Rural Affairs?

Fully half of the current UK cabinet have portfolios which cover only England. If Miliband wins a majority in the UK but not in England, he will find himself on the horns of a dilemma.

Either he appoints Labour members to head the English departments, in which case they will none of them have a majority in the chamber to pass any legislation; or else he appoints Tories to his cabinet, in which case fully half of his cabinet are from the opposition. In either scenario, England is quite ungovernable.

If Scotland bottles this referendum, the Labour party have not won. They've lost - and lost badly.

A footnote: how did Tam vote on tuition fees and on foundation hospitals? The answer is, I don't know. But it would be interesting to find out!

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