The West Lothian Answer


Given the very different appetites of the Coalition Government’s two parties for it, resolving the West Lothian question may not be high on its policy grocery list. Yet with the wording of next year’s referendum question to grant further powers to the Welsh Assembly finally looking agreed, it seems appropriate to once again highlight our constitution’s lopsidedness and propose a sensible correction.

If Wales votes positively in the referendum, the Welsh Assembly will be able to fully legislate in devolved areas (such as health and education) without Parliament’s consent. Like the Scottish Parliament it would be a thoroughly independent legislature in these areas. It is a development that I, and other localists, would welcome.

That said, it would exacerbate the wonkiness with which British law is made. English Members of Parliament would lose their ability to influence the Welsh Assembly’s legislative process (currently the Welsh Assembly needs to ask for Parliament’s permission to legislate on a particular matter within a devolved area; English MPs can always decline), whilst Welsh MPs would still be able to legislate on English matters.

Surely a better set up for the United Kingdom is one where each country of the Union has its own assembly to legislate in the devolved areas?

Few would deny this, yet some may object to an English Parliament on other grounds. Perhaps, they may say, “it’s an unnecessary expense” or “it risks duplicating the functions of the UK Parliament”. Yet neither of these need be true. If based in the House of Commons and comprising the 533 English MPs elected to the UK Parliament, there would be no building costs, minimal additional staff costs and no overlapping of constituency work. Cohabitation isn’t a problem either; the SNP majority in Scotland has not prevented the current Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition from governing the UK.

The sensible answer to the West Lothian question is an English Parliament. With the Welsh Assembly set to be strengthened soon, here’s a new question: “is it too much to ask?”