The West Lothian Question must be addressed


The results of the general election have again highlighted the unfairness of our asymmetric devolution arrangements. In a sense, it didn’t matter much to Scotland who won the election – they have their own parliament and their own government, and pursue their own policies on many domestic issues. And yet they still got to send 59 members of parliament to Westminster, who will now spend most of their time voting on and debating legislation that only applies to England.

In such a tight election race, these Scottish MPs could easily have held the balance of power, and been able to wield enormous influence over policies that could never impact their constituents. That this hasn’t happened should be welcomed, but it shouldn’t distract us from the fact that there remains something fundamentally wrong with our constitutional set-up. If – as seems to be the case – political and electoral reform is going to be a major issue in coming months, devolution must be part of the discussion.

I’ve written many times before that the only solution to this ‘West Lothian question’ is for power to be devolved to England as it is to Scotland. The radical decentralizer in me likes the idea of Swiss-style localism, with power devolved to the English counties, but realistically an English Parliament is the more obvious solution.

What the ASI has recommended before is that the MPs representing English constituencies in the House of Commons be constituted as a separate English Parliament, which would elect its own first minister, and take over the Commons for several weeks each month to deal with English issues. Interestingly enough, if this English Parliament existed today, it would contain 298 Conservative MPs, 191 Labour, 43 Liberal Democrat, and 1 Green. That would add up to a Tory majority of 31, compared with being 19 short of a majority at the UK level.

This is not an argument about whether or not England should have a Conservative government. Rather, my point is that if Scotland can elect a parliament that represents their views, and if Wales and Northern Ireland can elect assemblies to do the same, why can’t England? It is a simple matter of fairness that ought to be on the agenda.

P.S. Britain’s geographic polarization – the Tories won 71 percent of the seats in the South, compared with less than 2 percent in Scotland – is a striking feature of the 2010 electoral map. To me, that mitigates in favour of genuine political decentralization, a theme I’ll be returning to in future posts.