Sunday, 6 January 2008

The 'English Question'

In 1997 the Labour government held referenda in Scotland and Wales which led to the creation of the Welsh Assembly in 1998 and the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The Northern Ireland Assembly has also recently been re-established. This has led to what has become known as the West Lothian Question (named after the constituency of Tam Dalyel MP, who first asked it): How can it be right that in the House of Commons at Westminster, MPs representing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish constituencies can vote on matters which affect England, but which do not affect their own constituents, as the latter come under the jurisdiction of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly?
The situation has led to several bills being passed into law (eg. the Act which allowed for the creation of Foundation Hospitals and the Act which introduced university top-up fees) which were only passed as a result of the votes of MPs for Scottish constituencies (even though in Scotland, top-up fees have been rejected by the Scottish Parliament.)
In 1998, Labour's Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, said that the best answer to the West Lothian Question was to stop asking it, and so far the government has certainly not shown any great desire to address the issue of 'asymmetric devolution' although a number of opinion polls carried out throughout the UK in recent years have found that the majority of those polled consider the constitutional anomalies resulting from the current constitutional settlement to be unfair to the people of England.
The Conservative Party have hinted that, should they achieve power at the next general election, they would introduce a system whereby legislation affecting only those living in England could be voted on only by MPs representing English constituencies. This policy of 'English votes on English laws', however, would not be without its own problems. It would create a de facto English parliament where one party might effectively be in power in England, though without the usual trappings of government (eg. the power to run departments or the ability to implement a planned programme of legislation) while another party could be in power as the official government of the UK as a whole.
Recent polls have suggested that the people of England's favoured solution to the West Lothian Question is the establisment of a formal English parliament with similar powers to the Scottish one. However, this would be to turn the UK into a type of federation, with one of the partners in the Federation (ie. England) dwarfing the other three in terms of population and geographical territory.
Another proposed solution has been the idea of regional devolution within England, with the regional authorities holding similar powers to those of the current devolved bodies.
It is clear that there is no easy answer to the West Lothian Question but it is equally clear that the current post-devolution constitutional arrangements could potentially lead to outcomes that are less than optimally democratic (and, arguably, has done so already) and to leave them unaddressed is to invite possible unfairness and resentment in the future.
I have transcribed the comment from my old blog below:

Tally said...
Your humble opinion is also the opinion of many people in England.
Welcome to the Witangemot.

07 January 2008 00:20

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