Leader: Jo Swinson and the return of the West Lothian Question

As leader of the Lib Dems, polls suggest Jo Swinson has a chance of moving into 10 Downing Street. Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty
As leader of the Lib Dems, polls suggest Jo Swinson has a chance of moving into 10 Downing Street. Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty
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Given the Liberal Democrats’ performance in the European parliament elections and a recent poll putting the party in first place, it is not as far-fetched as it would have been a week ago to suggest their leader could become prime minister in the event of a general election.

And, with Vince Cable standing down, Jo Swinson, the MP for East Dunbartonshire, is a serious contender to replace him. But, if the course of events does give her a chance of moving into 10 Downing Street, Swinson would probably face claims that it is wrong for a Scottish MP to be prime minister – just as Gordon Brown did when he took over from Tony Blair.

The problem is that, as prime minister, Swinson would be in charge of decisions affecting the NHS, education and social 
care in England, but not Scotland, where 
such matters are devolved. So if English 
voters are annoyed by those decisions, they are not able to vote her out at the next opportunity.

This is the essence of Tam Dalyell’s famous West Lothian Question, which highlighted the democratic deficit that would be created by devolution in Scotland but not England. Creating an English parliament seems like a solution, but it also creates problems. It would also create a powerful rival to the Westminster parliament and it’s easy to imagine a Conservative-run English parliament might decide to use its tax-varying powers to wipe out a tax increase imposed by a Labour/Liberal-controlled UK parliament, leading to a prolonged policy war.

There is no doubt a prime minister making decisions that don’t affect her own electorate is a problem, but it is nowhere near as big as the problem that would be caused by a ban, official or not, on a Scottish politician becoming prime minister.

If the UK is to be a successful Union, there must be no question that politicians from the devolved nations can get to the top. Preventing this from happening would be akin to giving up on the Union.

The SNP is increasingly making a positive case for independence, trying to persuade people by a vision of a better future. In contrast, unionists have too often relied on “Project Fear”. It’s time for them to realise that if they want the Union to persist, they need to make a more positive case, think more deeply about constitutional issues, and find answers to difficult problems.