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Monday, June 1, 1998 Published at 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK

UK Politics: Talking Politics

The West Lothian Question

BBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor looks at a question that has no answer.

This question has become a convenient shorthand for the tensions which would allegedly arise upon the establishment of devolution for one part of the United Kingdom only.

[ image: Labour MP Tam Dalyell]
Labour MP Tam Dalyell
The original question was posed by Labour MP Tam Dalyell, whose constituency used to be called West Lothian.

He asked how it could be right that a Scottish MP at Westminster after devolution could vote upon matters such as education affecting English seats - but that same MP could not vote on such matters affecting his own constituency because they would have been devolved to a Scottish Parliament.

Tam Dalyell, putting the West Lothian question
Today, the question is more commonly assumed to challenge the fact that Scottish members at Westminster would continue to vote upon English matters while MPs from England had lost the power to influence Scottish affairs which had been devolved to Edinburgh.

End of the Union?

According to Mr Dalyell and others, this would create resentment in England and overall constitutional instability. It is argued it could ultimately break the Union.

It is presumed there would be particular resentment if the addition of Scottish votes altered the political make-up of the House of Commons.

For example, if England had returned mostly Conservatives but Scotland's Labour MPs produced an overall Labour majority.

It has become a political cliché to say that there is no answer to the West Lothian question. As so often in politics, however, there are a series of potential rebuttals.


One, it is pointed out that the West Lothian question patently does not apply at present - England has voted Labour - and has applied very infrequently in the past.

Two, it is argued that the potential West Lothian anomaly is outweighed by the actual past anomaly of Scotland voting predominantly for one party - Labour - and being governed by the Conservatives.

Three, the government case is that the sovereign Westminster Parliament will be opting of its own free will to devolve power to Scotland - to create the anomaly, if you like. This is broadly an extension of the mandate argument the Government has been granted power by the people and proposes to use it.

Four, it is pointed out that there has been in the past a parallel anomaly when Northern Ireland had its own assembly but continued to send members to Westminster. The particular sensitivities of Northern Ireland tend to reduce the frequency with which this argument is deployed.

Reducing Scottish MPs

These, as I say, are rebuttals - not answers. The principal government endeavour to remove the sting from the West Lothian question lies with signalling a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster.

This is to be done by liberating the Boundaries Commission from the stipulation that there must be a minimum of 71 MPs from Scotland. There are presently 72.

The outcome of the Boundary Commission's new free-thinking approach would be implemented probably for the General Election after next: in other words, up to a decade hence.

Rough parity with England in terms of constituents per MP would cut Scotland's stake from 72 to around 58.

From a previous position of insisting that Scotland should retain 72 Westminster MPs, Labour is now effectively prepared to accept such a reduction - without, of course, specifying numbers.

Three answers

This of itself would not answer West Lothian. That could be done in three ways.

One, the Liberal Democrat policy of federalism or some variant of that policy. England would have its own Parliament - either a distinct new body or simply the members of the present Westminster Parliament who have been returned by English constituencies, perhaps sitting as an English Grand Committee of the Commons.

However formed, this body would be responsible for legislation affecting England just as the Scottish Parliament will be responsible for legislation affecting Scotland.

Labour has evinced no enthusiasm for such a change. The Tories have yet to produce any formal plan - although they have stressed that they would see the need for further reform to tackle the anomalies allegedly created by the establishment of a Scottish Parliament.

Answers two and three

Two, West Lothian could be tackled by obliging Scottish MPs to absent themselves from Westminster votes on purely English matters.

That is unlikely to commend itself as a practical solution to a government - of either colour - seeking a consistent and reliable majority in a House where votes on a range of issues can occasionally arise without notice.

It is of course possible that individual parties or individual MPs may opt to abstain voluntarily.

Three, Scottish MPs could be removed permanently from the Commons - with the breaking of the Union settlement.

If the controversy over West Lothian becomes ever more strident, we may expect to hear Labour warn that the third option could become the inadvertent outcome.

There is a core argument underpinning the strategy of reducing the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster.

This is that - as long as England is prepared to accept the continuation of the Union settlement - then Westminster should accept Scottish MPs with the new proviso that there would not be exceptional numbers beyond Scotland's population entitlement.

England's position

In raw terms, England's constitutional position will not be perceived to be any worse as a consequence of devolution. Indeed, it could be argued that the concomitant cut in Scottish MPs at Westminster brings a relative strengthening of England's position.

Again, this does not answer West Lothian. And it does not guarantee the removal of personal or institutional tensions post-devolution. But it may at the very least look like an acknowledgement of understandable English concerns.

It seems likely that West Lothian will arise as an issue in some form in the future - particularly if a Conservative government were to be returned at Westminster.

One point that is perhaps worth bearing in mind, however, is that West Lothian is not a core issue for the Scots.

Perhaps understandably, Scotland is more concerned with the working of its planned new Parliament than with the claimed consequences for the governance of England at Westminster.

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