Andrew Ducker (andrewducker) wrote,
Andrew Ducker
andrewducker

Why are British politicians tying themselves in knots over constitutional matters?

A couple of weeks ago, back when there was a sudden glimmer of a chance[1] that Scotland might secede from the United Kingdom, the three unionist parties all panicked into action and made promises that Scotland could have all sorts of shiny things if only it would stay.

Come the day of the result you had a sudden disagreement over exactly what was going to happen, because it became clear that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats wanted to use the ceding of new powers to Scotland as a chance to finally solve the West Lothian Question, and that this absolutely terrifies Labour.

This sounds really dry and complex. But it's vital to the future of the UK, and if you care at all about Scotland, the UK, and what's coming up in the next decade, you _really_ need to know about this.

The West Lothian Question basically oils down to "Why is it that Scottish MPs get to vote on laws affecting matters in England, but English MPs don't get to vote on laws affecting devolved matters in Scotland?". Where "devolved matters" are things like the Scottish NHS, education, etc.[2]

And it's a good question - All MPs get to vote over any laws debated at Westminster, which covers all laws that affect England, but when it comes to matters that the Scottish Parliament covers, only MSPs get to vote on them, and that does seem a bit unfair. So lots of time and effort has been spent on resolving the issue. Which is, of course, more complicated than you might think.

The most obvious answer is "Don't let Scottish MPs vote on laws that don't affect Scotland." But this has several drawbacks.
Firstly, almost any law that affects England affects its budget. And anything that affects the budget in England has knock-on effects in Scotland because Scotland's block grant is calculated using the Barnett Formula, based on a percentage of English spending. So if England votes for cuts then that _does_ have an effect on Scottish spending.

Secondly, the Scottish Government's powers are granted by Westminster, and can be revoked by them. So any law passed in Westminster can later on suddenly find itself applied in Scotland too.[3]

Thirdly, and this is the one that Labour _really_ cares about - imagine a situation where Labour win the next election with a tiny majority. They then find themselves in a situation whereby they cannot pass legislation on the NHS, because only their English MPs can vote on it, and those are outnumbered by Conservatives. You've effectively got one government for UK matters and one for English matters, made up of mostly the same members. Also, you couldn't possibly have a Scottish Prime Minister, or cabinet member, because then they couldn't vote on most of their own legislation! Conversely, this is almost certainly a driver for the Conservatives to back it.
A second answer is to actually have multiple governments - to have one for England and one for the UK. But then you need to ask whether you make double use of MPs for both England and the UK, and whether you have a separate Prime Minister for England and the UK (because they could have majorities from two different parties/coalitions). It ends up looking terribly fiddly for not much gain for 90% of the population of the UK, who tend to think of the whole thing as being "England" anyway, and get grumpy when you remind them that it's not.

A third answer is to push it down a level. Scotland only has about 10% of the UK's population. Is there any reason why we could push down a lot of decision making to a local level, slice the UK into a number of smaller parts[4], and give them all a lot more control over their local running than they currently have. Something like the divisions currently used for the European Elections would probably work reasonably well, although the horse-trading over how to divide it up would probably keep us busy for a very long time. The disadvantages there being that whenever things are different from area to area people complain a _lot_, using phrases like "Postcode lottery". Lib-Dems like devolution and local decision making, so they're all in favour. Labour and The Conservatives both dislike it, because they like keeping a tight rein on decision-making.

Essentially, the current system is rubbish, but nobody can agree a better one, because they all have drawbacks which mean a large chunk of the population hate them too. This isn't a new question, of course, The West Lothian Question was first asked in 1977 (when discussing the Independence Referendum of the time), and similar questions were raised as far back as 1866 (when Irish Home Rule was first discussed). It's only been a massive issue for 16 years now (since the Scottish Parliament came into being), and a number of solutions have been proposed.

Personally, I don't have an ideal answer - the problem is that you have powers devolved down the way for one area, with represenatives that cover both.[5] I strongly suspect that we're going to have the first solution foisted on us by the end of this parliament, and that it will cause me to agree with Jack Straw for the first time ever[6], because removing the power of Scottish Labour MPs to vote on most English matters will almost certainly split Labour, and lead to Scottish Labour being a lot more ambivalent about any future independence referendum, if not actively in favour.

[1]It's amusing to consider where we might be now if that poll hadn't shown a 1% lead for Yes. Not nearly as amusing as watching the parties bicker though.
[2]You can see a list here.
[3]This has already happened when the UK Energy Bill removed the scottish parliament's powers over renewable energy obligations.
[4]A perfect opportunity to bring back the Heptarchy.
[5]Oh, and Wales is different again. I don't know much about how that works, but it's not as separate as Scotland is, so far as I can tell. I suspect that any changes will have to also cover Welsh MPs for certain issues too.
[6]"I say to the Conservatives that if they start to take a mechanical approach, this so-called 'English votes for English laws' approach, then they will break the Union."




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