The Mid-Atlantic Blog

January 17, 2006

Baker On The West Lothian Question

The West Lothian question has surfaced again, as it is likely to continue doing. The underlying problems raised by devolution under the current government have never been taken seriously, and have not been addressed.

They are, of course, about to become radically more important. A likely result of the next election is a small Labour majority under Gordon Brown, with the majority sustained by the votes of Scottish MPs. This will be clearly unfair, and will provide great ammunition for Cameron. I have some concerns about his ability, as an English toff, to raise the question in a way that won't undo some of the progress that the party has made over the last few years, but he should be able to find enough Scots to help him.

So, how to deal with the problem?

There are two basic approaches.

The most common approach proposed is changing the rules of the existing institutions. The approach outlined by Lord Baker in today's Telegraph falls into this category. English votes for English laws, or some variant on it, would go part of the way to solving the problem, of course. However, it would institute a two-tier system of MPs, and would add a whole bunch of complexity to Parliamentary processes (how do you define an "English" bill, for example). Worse, it would cause real problems in terms of assessing eligibility for high office (who has a majority would, err... depend). Most important, it would keep the real problem in place.

The alternative is much more attractive structurally: a devolved English Parliament, based maybe in Middlesex Guildhall, across the road from Westminster, and with similar devolved powers to the Scottish Parliament. Westminster would, of course retain the currently "national" powers needed: defence, foreign affairs, the core fiscal and macroeconomic controls, and so on. Much else would be devolved.

There is a disadvantage, of course, which is that it involves more politicians. This is, indeed, a problem, although solvable (in part by reducing the number of MPs in the Westminster House). More important, though, is that it would recreate balance in the constitution, and allow those of us living in England an appropriate degree of self-determination. The media would begin to report more accurately, and it would be easier to hold the appropriate level of the political system to account.

Of course, this is all very un-English: in particular because they believe that the Westminster Parliament IS the English Parliament. How we get over that hurdle I'm not sure... but I suspect we'll get a lot more attention to this in only a couple more years.

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