Why is it that the only people who don’t seem to care about the West Lothian Question are the English voters themselves? The political and media classes are forever agonising about the anomaly of Scottish MPs voting on Commons legislation which only affects England, like the smoking bill. But there is silence from the shires.
Yesterday, the SNP MP Peter Wishart declared that all Scottish MPs should exercise constitutional coitus interruptus and withdraw from such votes. What right do Scottish MPs have deciding health policy in England, he says when English MPs have no say on health policy in Scotland? How would we like it if English MPs decided we were not going to have a ban?
Well, actually, for three hundred years, that’s exactly what happened – as nationalists ought to know. As recently as 1988, Scots had the poll tax imposed upon them by a parliament dominated by English MPs. The Scottish Conservatives had been eviscerated at the 1987 general election, but that didn’t stop Margaret Thatcher imposing the community charge on the strength of English Tory MPs’ votes .
So, why don’t the English now get similarly annoyed at the prospect of there being a Scottish Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who will be calling the shots in England when the English have no say over what happens in his constituency in Scotland? Isn’t it Thatcher in reverse?
Well, the answer is really contained in the question. Think of the converse: the proposition that Gordon Brown should not be Prime Minister because he is Scottish. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom; we have a unitary parliament, so it would be absurd, indeed, racist, to suggest that he could not be Prime Minister.. Gordon Brown would be entitled to go to the European Court of Human Rights if he were denied entrance to Number Ten because of his ethnic origin.
Not that Brown hasn’t been worried about his nationality. He’s been going to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate his commitment to Britishness recently, wrapping himself in the flag. Rumour has it that he’ll be turning up for next month’s Budget with a union jack waistcoat leading a bulldog.
Mind you, the English seem increasingly to prefer the Cross of St George. One of the by-products of devolution has been the reassessment of symbols of Englishness, like the English flag, which has been wrested from the clutches of the far right.
This is all well and good. But it does again raise the question of why, if the English are becoming more nationalistic, they allow a situation to continue whereby Scottish MPs can decide their legislation. Take the forthcoming education bill. Scottish MPs may vote for the restoration of selection to English schools when these very reforms have been rejected in Scotland.
Actually, a number of Scottish Labour MPs last month made clear to the Labour whips that they had real trouble supporting the Education White Paper for precisely this reason. The forty or so Scottish MPs happen to be roughly equivalent to the likely number of English Labour rebels. It looked as if a situation might arise in which a measure, rejected by English Labour MPs, might still be imposed in England by the Scots. Were that to happen, there might indeed be civil war – between the Scottish and English Labour backbenchers.
However, the only people that don’t seem to be particularly bothered by all this are, I say again, the English voters themselves. The very people who are likely to be affected. Where are the street demonstrations? The petitions against Scottish Dictat? The campaigns for an English parliament?
Prior to devolution, I spent ten years living and working in London and I never once heard anyone – outside Westminster – complain about the West Lothian Question. I heard complaints that the Scots were always whinging, got too much public money. I came across a lot of casual racism from Londoners who would never dream of calling Asians or Afro Caribbean’s “awkward” , “mean”, “congenitally aggressive”. But no one ever turned to me at a dinner party and said: “Look, until you people stop voting in our parliament there will be no peace in this land”.
This isn’t because people in England are ignorant of constitutional change. They know perfectly well what is going on. English students have been eager to get into Scottish universities to take advantage of free tuition fees, even though variable fees in England were actually passed in parliament on the strength of Scottish Labour MPs.
So, why are they unfazed? Well, firstly, the English are far too sensible to go looking for a fight, especially over a constitutional abstraction. Scottish MPs may get privileged treatment in the Commons, being allowed to vote on English affairs. But is it really worth the hassle of ejecting them every time there is a vote on a devolved matter? Wouldn’t the anomalies of addressing the WLQ be worse than letting sleeping Jocks lie?
If, for example, Scottish MPs were to be withdrawn for every nominally English bill – as the Tories propose – you could end up with a situation where the government of the UK was unable to rule over four fifths of the country. The government’s writ would not run in England, where the Conservatives won a majority of votes at the last election. There would be a de facto English Parliament. This is why every constitutional authority, from the Hansard Society to the Constitution Unit, has argued against addressing the WLQ by certifying English bills and excluding Scots from voting on them.
The only true answer to the West Lothian Question is a federal system of government, such as America’s, where there is a formal division of powers, a federal UK government and distinct parliaments for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, each with their own clearly defined spheres of responsibility. Oh, and a supreme court to oversee disputes.
But does anyone really want to go there? Certainly not the English, who showed their distaste for further constitutional change when they rejected regional parliaments in the North of England. The reality is that England already dominates the UK, regardless of constitutional anomalies. It has the bulk of the population, the wealth and the national media. No one wants to have an ethnic dimension introduced to the House of Commons.
The same goes for Prime Ministers. English people want the country to be run by the best politician available, and they don’t really care where he or she comes from. Gordon Brown has been the most successful Chancellor of the Exchequer in ninety years. His ethnic origins just don’t come into it.
The West Lothian Question is the dog that didn’t bark in the night. In Scotland we have failed to understand the message of England’s silence. The truth is, they just don’t care. So, why should we?