Fear and Lothian in Westminster

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The end of Scotland’s unsuccessful bid for independence has segued (as they say in show business) into Britain’s general election campaign. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had clearly miscalculated the strength of the Scottish “yes” vote, must still be wiping his brow at having narrowly escaped disaster. Carwyn Jones, the Welsh first minister, accused him of “sleepwalking” through the Scottish bid to leave the union. But Cameron’s last-minute promise of wider powers for Scotland was crucial in reversing a drift toward a “yes” vote in the closing days of the long campaign. Now Westminster has to make good on its commitments.

Somehow, the Scottish vote against change has in effect become a vote for change on an even broader scale, with the prime minister supporting numerous demands for more power in such matters as taxes, health issues, and education from Cornwall, Wales, Northern Ireland, and even England. Gone is his earlier insistence on preserving the sanctity of the United Kingdom’s union as the foundation of the country’s strength; he is now offering a change in the constitution that would emphasize the separateness of its component parts.

More autonomy for England may sound weird, but the thorny issue of “English [parliamentary] votes for English laws” is one area of possible change Cameron mentioned Friday—and one where he can see a political advantage.

For years, English MPs have complained about the unfairness of members from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland voting on domestic issues that affected only England, while there are no English MPs in the other parliaments to balance that situation. In British politics this is known as the West Lothian Question because, coincidentally, it was first raised as an anomaly some years ago by the parliamentary member from a Scottish electoral district by that name.

If procedure in the House of Commons is changed to limit voting on strictly English issues to parliamentarians from constituencies in England, the opposition Labor Party would lose the votes of around 40 members from Scotland, plus others from Wales and Northern Ireland. The Conservatives, on the other hand, would only be one vote short: there is only one Scottish Tory MP—and little prospect of adding any more in the coming elections.

Various suggestions have been put forward for solving the West Lothian Question. One is to have a separate parliament for England to correspond with the parliaments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and with the same powers. Another is to introduce a “drop out” measure whenever the Commons votes on measures pertaining to England. A third is to designate certain days of the week in which only English MPs sit in the House of Commons.

All three political leaders—Cameron, the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, and opposition leader Ed Miliband of the Labor Party, have promised quick action on giving Scotland more power. Gordon Brown, Labor’s most recent prime minister and himself a Scotsman, told his fellow countrymen Friday that the three leaders “were promise makers and they will not be promise breakers, and I will ensure that these promises are upheld.”

The timetable calling for the three parties to cobble together a package of proposals by November and have them debated in January would be a tall order at the best of times. But the three parties’ ideas are far apart on some issues (for example, taxes), and with a general election next spring the deadline would seem almost impossible. So the issue could spill over into the election campaign, and we know what can happen to campaign promises.

 

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