One West Lothian question, but four answers no-one agrees on
EVERYONE involved in politics agrees on what the West Lothian Question is. The problem
is that no-one can agree on the answer. There are four broad solutions to the problem: English votes for English matters (or the English Grand Committee option), federalism, regional assemblies and all-out independence for Scotland. At the heart of the problem is the nature of devolution in the UK: it has created an asymmetrical system of governance. The Scottish are governed differently to the Welsh and to the Northern Irish and to the English. This is bound to cause resentment around the country. Each of the main parties backs a different solution.
'British' appeal of Union is lost on cosmopolitan Scots
THE big question in West Lothian just now is about whether the council tax will be frozen. Or, it might be about mortgages and the cost of housing. It certainly won't be about the West Lothian Question (WLQ) as defined by opponents of devolution in the 1970s.
The WLQ encapsulated the uneven nature of Labour's proposed Scottish devolution scheme, jettisoned by Mrs Thatcher when she sailed into Downing Street.
During the Thatcher and Major years, the WLQ was only of interest to anoraks, and then only north of the Solway.
However, as a result of Scottish devolution, financial feather-bedding and limitless largesse from Westminster - according to English politics-watchers, politicians and journalists who should know better - that's changing, fast.
Thirty years ago, the public took little interest in Scottish devolution. But the axis of power and confidence has changed in the UK, Ireland and the wider world, and the backlash predicted by devolution sceptics such as Tam Dalyell and me is upon us.
The global village is made virtual reality for tomorrow's decision-makers and opinion-formers by internet and satellite communications and cheap flights to every corner of the world. For this casually cosmopolitan generation, national identity is worn lightly.
The new sense of identity rests on the popular culture that emerged in the middle of the last century. In the UK and Ireland, it has resulted in a social union that doesn't depend on political structures.
Clinging to a political arrangement which puts an artificial ceiling on aspirations to have it all, here, in Scotland, makes no sense. From this "new" nationalist/internationalist perspective, a call to remember what it is to be British presses no buttons, especially if it is from politicians, a despised breed.
Having the strength of "Big Britain" behind us means Scots forfeit the right to represent ourselves in the European Union, or to negotiate with the oil industry directly, or to adopt an immigration policy suited to our situation.
Younger, cosmopolitan Scots don't identify with the past power and glory of the Empire, so this historic bargain is losing its appeal. But Unionist politicians in Scotland invoke traditional Britishness in support of their argument that Scots don't want independence.
They equate public disinterest with the wish to stay with Westminster, when it actually reflects the desire to avoid constitutional uncertainty.
Yet aspirations for separate, customised policy-making in reserved areas can only be met by a sovereign Holyrood.
Nationalists should explain this, and should reassure family members, comrades and colleagues in England that the West Lothian Question will be redundant on the establishment of sovereign parliaments in Holyrood and Westminster.
It should be made clear that the new, legal relationships among the nations and regions of these islands will enable us to build co-operative structures of governance that reflect 21st- century national and regional demarcation lines.
Extreme answer or logical next step?
WHAT IS IT?
This would be the creation of an independent country, Scotland, leaving the rest of the United Kingdom intact.
Scottish independence could then be followed by Welsh independence and, possibly, the breaking away of Northern Ireland, either on its own or to join the Republic of Ireland - although that is a much more distant prospect.
This would result in the creation of at least two and possibly four independent nations where one exists at the moment. There would be no shared policies or financial arrangements between them, except in relation to Europe. Each country would expect to be a member of the European Union, with the financial and legislative obligations which flow from that.
In the case of Scotland, independence would mean the end of the 300-year-old Union with England. The consensus is now that a referendum of Scots would be needed to begin moves towards separation, a plan to which the SNP-led Scottish Government is committed.
WHO SUPPORTS IT?
Independence is the aim of the Scottish, Welsh, English and Irish nationalists. The SNP is in a stronger position than its UK counterparts as it is running the Scottish Government and it is likely that, if any part of the UK did become independent, it would be Scotland.
This plan would certainly end the resentments in England over Scottish devolution and the long-running arguments about who subsidises whom within the United Kingdom.
There would be no West Lothian Question left, because there would be no Scottish MPs at Westminster. Each nation would have to stand on its own, surviving or thriving on its own policies and with the money it raised.
This would end the United Kingdom as a nation state and leave Scotland as a small European nation, not as part of a global one.
There are many questions - from Scotland's ability to join the EU to the amount of oil left in the North Sea - which have to be answered before Scotland's ability to thrive as an independent nation state can be decided.
This option would answer the West Lothian Question, but would be seen by many in the UK as an extreme solution to a relatively contained constitutional problem.
Balanced system or a whole new set of problems?
WHAT IS IT?
Federalism is supposed to be a balanced system of government with a central governing authority, the federal government, and constituent political units, like states or provinces. Power is shared between the federal and regional governments, the balance depending on the type of federalism adopted.
Under a federal system, each constituent country of the UK would have equal power, almost certainly more than the Scottish Government has now.
They would have the ability to raise at least part of the money they spend, possibly VAT, stamp duty and some form of income tax, with defence, foreign affairs and macro-economics residing with the federal government.
WHO SUPPORTS IT?
This is the Liberal Democrats' favoured option. However, some Tories (including Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Tories' deputy leader) have suggested a "quasi-federalist" solution.
This would provide the balance lacking in the current set-up. It would give each nation in the UK its own parliament with the same powers, each able to send representatives to the federal parliament in London. It would probably reduce the tensions caused by Scottish nationalism and English resentment at the apparent largesse in Scotland's financial settlement.
Under this plan, England, with a population of 50 million people, would have the same sort of parliament and government as Wales, with two million, which could lead to other imbalances and new problems. It would change the nature of Westminster government, stripping the current Cabinet-style government of many of its powers. Parliament would have to be changed into upper and lower houses.
More autonomy, but tried and found wanting
WHAT IS IT?
This was first suggested by Labour after the 1997 election as a way of devolving power to areas of England, a sort of minor form of devolution for the English regions. It also fits in with the European concept of subsidiarity - devolving power down to its most appropriate level.
Spearheaded by John Prescott, the then deputy prime minister, the plan was to be rolled out, with the north-east of England given the chance to vote first, in a referendum - but the people voted "no". With that rejection, the plan all but died. The only assembly created was for London, which is still going strong.
WHO SUPPORTS IT?
Many Labour MPs still support the plan as a way of heading off English resentment over Scottish devolution. They cannot understand why the English, who complain about Scottish devolution, have shown such a marked reluctance to grab some power for themselves.
It would cut through some centralisation of power accumulated in Westminster and Whitehall over the past few decades. It would give English regions more autonomy to make local decisions and take away some of the resentment caused by Scottish and Welsh devolution. If the assemblies had control over their budgets, they would be able to take some spending decisions on their own priorities.
It was tried and abandoned at its first attempt. It clearly does not enjoy widespread public support, not least because it is seen as creating another layer of politicians and bureaucrats without any real advantages. Also, nobody is quite sure what sort of power the assemblies should have. They would not have the power of the Scottish Parliament, leading to the same imbalances we have now.
Easing tensions but with threat of crisis
WHAT IS IT?
This plan would see the creation of an English grand committee in the Commons, made up exclusively of MPs in England.
The committee would discuss and vote on English domestic matters, like health and education - the same issues as are decided for Scotland in Holyrood.
The grand committee would effectively be an English Parliament. It would sit in the chamber of the House of Commons and have the authority of an English parliament.
The only restraint on the committee would be that its decisions would have to be ratified by the full Commons and Lords.
At either stage, the UK parliament could knock down the grand committee's decisions, but that would be hugely controversial and likely to cause a constitutional crisis. It would be modelled on the Scottish grand committee, which was set up before devolution to allow Scottish MPs to discuss issues.
WHO SUPPORTS IT?
This plan is supported by the Conservative Party. The initial plans were drawn up by Sir Malcolm Rifkind as a solution to the West Lothian Question.
There are also some within the Labour Party (mostly in England) who support the plans, concerned that the government's failure to tackle the West Lothian Question is playing into both Nationalist and Conservative hands.
The idea would solve the West Lothian Question - why is it that Scottish MPs can decide English domestic issues, but English MPs have no power over Scottish domestic issues?
This plan would end the perceived unfairness at a stroke by allowing English MPs to decide their own issues.
It would reduce the sense of unfairness felt in England by devolution and ease relations between Scots and English. It would also ease resentment without adding another tier of government, like regional assemblies, or another tranche of MPs, to the political process.
An English grand committee could, quite quickly, result in constitutional crisis. If, as might be expected after the next election, the Tories win a majority in England but not in the UK, a Labour government would find itself powerless to enact domestic legislation for England.
It could lead to the prospect of a UK Labour government able only to act on foreign affairs and defence - eroding the way governments have operated in Britain.
The plan would inevitably lead to tensions between the English grand committee and the UK parliament, particularly if the committee was dominated by the Tories.
It would also create two classes of MPs with two different voting rights. The scheme would also further marginalise Scottish MPs who have already seen their workload cut drastically by the creation of the Scottish Parliament.
Taking away their voting rights on English domestic legislation would leave them with very little to do, playing into the hands of Scottish Nationalists, who would argue that the best thing to do would be to abolish Scottish MPs at Westminster altogether.
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