THE West Lothian Question is older than we think
As was outlined in these pages yesterday, Tam Dalyell’s cause célèbre of the 1970s at the time of the first devolution referendum is a constitutional dilemma that can actually be traced back to 1885, during debates on the Irish question.
After all these years, it would be reasonable to assume that, had a practical solution been possible, it would have been found by now. Instead, there has been much heat and little light as debate has raged on, long after Tam took a step back from his traditional post on the front line of the awkward squad.
Today, however, we might have a method of mitigating the problem, if not necessarily a solution.
Commons leader Chris Grayling has announced a new stage is to be introduced for laws passing through Parliament, allowing English MPs to either accept or veto legislation. It is the mechanism by which the government hopes to introduce “English votes for English laws” – Evel – which has been on the agenda since the morning after the independence referendum.
The proposal was condemned by all opposition parties yesterday, and there is justified criticism over the way that the government has gone about introducing this fundamental departure from existing constitutional arrangements, with only a single day of parliamentary debate allocated to the issue. Railroaded, some would say.
Much of the backlash, however, amounts to what Scottish Secretary David Mundell referred to as “forced anger”. There is outrage about cutting Scottish MPs out of votes, fanning the flames of Nationalism, and David Cameron becoming a bigger threat to the Union than Alex Salmond.
Some of the howls of protest point to a further agenda, claiming the veto is an attempt to gerrymander numbers and thus secure a greater advantage for the Tories in the Commons. Amid the anger there is a disappointing reluctance to acknowledge that the West Lothian Question is valid, and requires an answer. The Conservatives’ proposal may be far from perfect, but it responds to an issue that festers. If English MPs can no longer vote on issues that were devolved to Holyrood, why is it fair that Scottish MPs can vote on English-only matters which do not affect their constituents?
Opposition parties point to English-only matters which have consequential effects for Scotland, in terms of share of funding. This is a valid concern, and how this is managed will determine the success or failure of Evel.
But on issues where there is no consequence for Scotland, or even little consequence for Scotland, Evel is only right and proper. Sometimes it has to be recognised that the greater good lies in doing the right thing.
You couldn’t make it up … or could you?
Writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn satirised government in a vicious yet elegant way in their brilliant comedy series Yes Minister, in which the hapless Jim Hacker was manipulated by a devious Sir Humphrey Appleby. They came up with some staggeringly stupid ways for government to work.
But even they surely would have rejected as too implausible any plan to relocate the population of Hong Kong, some 5.5 million souls, to a Northern Ireland riven by sectarian division and violence. Exactly what the effect would have been on Northern Ireland’s population of 1.8 million cannot accurately be judged.
The plan was put forward by an academic, Christy Davies of Reading University. Perhaps the kindest thing that could be said is that it is the job of academia to think the unthinkable, to stretch society’s boundaries so that unusual and innovative solutions can be found to improve our joint lot.
It is unclear at this distance in time exactly how the plan was mooted, although it would seem that green ink was almost certainly used. One would have thought this might be sufficient warning for the civil servants on the receiving end, as it would be for any editor of a newspaper letters page.
What we can see is that there is no sign that Mr Fergusson, the Northern Irish civil servant who contacted the Republic of Ireland foreign office over the matter, thought it was a joke or too ridiculous to give any credence to.
The worry is that such revelations just reinforce the public’s view of government. And make life difficult for comedy writers.