This week, William Hague, the leader of the House of Commons, announced plans to bring in ‘English votes for English laws’. The issue has been an unanticipated and somewhat ironic consequence of the Scottish referendum. This could be the first step to settling a constitutional flaw that has troubled political analysts for decades.
The West Lothian question asks why English MPs should tolerate Scottish MPs voting on English issues while they have no say on the same matters in Scotland. It is a historic question that dates back to the first Irish Home Rule bill in 1886 when William Gladstone argued:
“If Ireland is to have domestic legislation for Irish affairs they cannot come here for English or Scottish affairs.”
The same logic was not applied to Scotland and, in a constitutional sense, England has been under-represented ever since the devolution bills of 1997. For years it has been more than a question: the West Lothian question is an ignored reality.
There is one fundamental problem. The West Lothian question is easy to ask but it is another matter entirely to answer it. Hague has outlined four alternative proposals to address the issue, all of which would solve the issue of English votes for English laws. They are:
- Barring Scottish and Northern Irish MPs from any role in English and Welsh bills and limiting England-only bills to English MPs.
- Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills during their committee and report stages, where amendments are tabled and agreed, before allowing all MPs to vote on the final bill.
- Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills at committee stage and giving them an effective veto in a separate vote before their third reading.
- A separate Lib Dem plan to establish a grand committee of English MPs, with the right to veto legislation applying only England, with its members based on the share of the vote.
It all sounds straightforward: only English MPs should vote on matters that affect only England. Sadly, it’s not quite that simple to define what an English law actually is. The Barnett formula is the system used for allocating Treasury funds to devolved administrations. Under this formula, any law that involves government spending extra money in England, or which reduces the amount of money spent in England, will have a knock-on impact on how much money other parts of the United Kingdom receive. Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish MPs will argue that any law involving additional or reduced departmental expenditure in England affects the whole of the UK.
Politically, a lot is at stake here. Labour said the plans were “more in the interest of the Conservative Party than the country”. It is not surprising that the Conservatives might favour a more ‘English system’. Indeed, had the last general election been based on English results alone, the Conservatives would have won with an outright majority. This is, therefore, more than a constitutional issue. It could have extremely important repercussions to the balance of power so there is no doubt that, politically speaking, we are living through fascinating times.
The British electorate are asking questions that have long been ignored and Westminster has responded. We are on the cusp of witnessing historic change and, like him or not, we have Alex Salmond to thank. However, what happens next remains uncertain as the Labour party have already accused Hague’s proposals of being a ‘backroom stitch up’. Even if the Westminster parties can agree on a system, it would be wise to expect lengthy arguments about what ‘English only’ actually means.