The Westlothian question – and answer!

Let us go forward together

When New Labour signed up to the devolution project for Scotland and Wales, Tony Blair seemed to think he was creating a couple of super county councils which would always be Labour controlled and would kill local Nationalism stone dead.

Those of us with a sense of constitutional history could see from the start that this was bunkum and that his Devolution Acts were not a brake on Nationalism so much as a ratchet. From the beginning the ‘system’ created in 1999 had an enormous flaw – it completely lacked an English dimension. Scottish and Welsh MPs could hold ministerial offices which dealt with solely English concerns but (apart from the anomalous Secretaries of State) they could not have any say in 60% of matters affecting their own constituents. MPs who are not ministers from the devolved countries can and do vote on matters affecting only England, but are unable to vote on most matters affecting the people who elected them. This is really the ‘Westlothian Question’ Tam Dalyell posed in the 1970s. Dalyell’s answer was to vote NO to devolution at all. And that answer was honest and logical.

Faced with four general election defeats in a row between 1979 and 1992, Dalyell’s party changed its tune, under the brief leadership of the Scot, John Smith. Blair was not, I think, ever enamoured of the idea but Labour had signed up to it in order to make common ground with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems and isolate the Tories politically in Scotland and Wales for what they imagined would be their political benefit. And in 1997 it paid off big time, did it not?

From that moment on the problems engendered by the complete failure to address the Westlothian Question began to kick in, especially in Scotland as I always thought they would. Looking at the Stormont experience in Northern Ireland it was plain that the terms of political debate in Scotland would soon cease to resemble those in England altogether. A Nationalist party exploiting and fostering a sense of grievance as well as Salmond and his friends have done would soon see to that. A party regarded as the lunatic fringe by many (and Tartan Tories by Labour) in the 60s got the chance to participate in government and to form a Scottish Executive (which it quickly renamed – unlawfully in my opinion – the Scottish Government).

Now it seems that David Cameron is trying to come to terms with the mess Blair created. An old idea about English Votes for English Laws is being recreated, but these votes are to be proposed by UK ministers (who could be Scottish or Welsh and not supported by the votes of a majority of English constituencies) and taken within the UK Parliament.

Sorry to say it – I see this as a non-starter. The only answer to the Question posed above is for English Laws to be generated in exactly the same way Scottish and Welsh ones are, by an English Parliament or Assembly to which English ministers are responsible within a Federal United Kingdom. Tam Dalyell’s answer would be infinitely preferable to me but I can see quite clearly that reviving the constitutional settlement that worked so well for us between 1707 and 1999 is impossible in the present political climate.

This way we could maintain a Federal Parliament much smaller than the present House of Commons and a genuinely UK government with responsibility for matters that concern us all, including federal taxation defence, foreign affairs, the currency, energy and trade. And a flag law – giving the Union Flag the status the Stars and Stripes has in the USA, to be flown either on its own or alongside the flags of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales but not supplanted by them.


About pauljohnston

Elected as Conservative councillor in Surbiton Hill, Kingston upon Thames in 1998. Re-elected 2002 and 2006. Former parliamentary candidate in Lancashire and Birmingham. Ceased to be a Councillor (temporarily?) in 2010. Active among Residents' Associations in Surbiton Hill and among residents in social housing generally. Former teacher of History at St. Brendan's College Bristol and Head of History and Politics at the London Oratory School. Worked with Sutton Trust running summer schools for sixth formers at Oxford University from 1997-2000 aiming to improve uptake of places from pupils from state schools which sent very few applicants to Oxbridge.
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10 Responses to The Westlothian question – and answer!

  1. I’d note – as an aside – that SNP Westminster members don’t vote on English matters.
    [Ob. Interest Declaration – I’m an English-born Scottish resident member of the SNP]

  2. Toque says:

    SNP members observe a self-denying ordinance when they can, but it’s a lie to say that they don’t vote on English matters. Sometimes an English-only, or English-and-Welsh-only, matter will have funding implications for Scotland, so the SNP vote. The truth is that nothing is solely an English matter.

  3. pauljohnston says:

    By the same token is anything purely a Scottish matter either? The truth is that the component elements of the UK are so interwoven after all the centuries we have been together that disaggregation of them would be a very complex matter. National or regional separatists always seem to assume that the ‘Balkanisation’ of the UK would be a simple exercise and quote Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia as examples – well, they don’t usually mention Yogoslavia if they remember what happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kossovo etc. Of course, that sort of thing couldn’t happen here, could it? Neither Czechoslovakia nor Yugoslavia existed for more than 75 years overall and they were both broken up during the Nazi era and kept together thereafter by the strap of a Communist dictatorship (Yugoslavia had a ‘Royal’ dictatorship before WW2). England (including Cornwall!) has existed in its present shape for about 1200 years. Wales was incorporated into it in 1536 under Henry VIII having before that been ruled by a Council under the English crown since the late 13th century. The King of Scots inherited the English throne in 1603 and the united Kingdom of Great Britain was formed by the Act of Union in 1707 under his great grand daughter Queen Anne. This island had been united under a single government for much longer than any of the continental states that have split apart. Ripping it apart would be a piece of constitutional vandalism with unforeseeable consequences affecting the lives of every man, woman and child in it.

  4. cornubian says:

    An English Parliament? No thanks. I’m Cornish, I have no real sense of attachment to the English nation and another centralised parliament far away in London would do zero for Cornwall’s culture, identity or economy. In 2002 the Cornish autonomist movement gathered a petition of 50,000 signatures (10% of our population) calling for a Cornish Assembly. This was supported by opinions polls at around 55% in favour.

    The Cornish Constitutional Convention:

  5. pauljohnston says:

    What would your Cornish Assembly do that Cornwall County Council doesn’t? And would you want Cornwall to be part of a Federal UK? An English Parliament need not necessarily be in London, by the way.

  6. Good article, and I like your suggestion that a federal UK parliament should be much smaller than the current UK parliament – since that addresses one of the usual excuses for opposing an English parliament, that too many additional politicians would be required. If you make the House of Lords the UK federal parliament you could probably reduce the number of politicians when introducing an English parliament. I don’t share your nostalgia for Britain as a political entity though. Since British politicians only care about the UK and EU, but not England, better to kill the UK off completely, and that as soon as possible, via a similar referendum to that being scheduled for Scotland. The rationale here being, that the British have completely blown the opportunity provided by the past 15 years to show that they care about England, and that their death as a political force is probably a necessary precondition to addressing pressing English problems, particularly neglect of the North (in contrast to Scotland, Wales, NI), and indiscriminate immigration and over-development in the South.

  7. shaun the brummie says:

    so cornwall doesn’t want anything to do with england..fine…cornwall can live on the taxes it raises,and cornish pasties it “creates”,horrible dry things…not a patch on a good old steak and kidney pie.anyhow,cornwall can do as it wants,that’ll be another border needed patrolling,and all those ornish sports teams playing in english leagues and divisions can play with “themselves”,and leave us english with less benefits to dole out to another benefit dependent state.bye bye.

  8. pauljohnston says:

    Cornishmen are denizens of England and have been as long as England itself has existed. They were part of the Roman Province of Britannia before that. I love Cornwall and have family living there. They, like many other romantic flyers of the flag of St. Piran, are retirees from the West Midlands. My wife is of Cornish descent from the Callington area, which is just west of the Tamar. I have been fond of Cornish pasties 9and steak and kidney pie) since my childhood in Lancashire.
    I love the whole of this country and value its variety. I want all my fellow countrymen to love it too. What I deeply regret are the groups of people who purport to love it but who (often for motives of self-aggrandisement) seek to break it apart.

  9. @pauljohnston,
    As to what a Cornish Assembly would do that our Unitary Authority cannot then just take a look at the Welsh Assembly and compare it to a County Council. Equally feel free to read the documents provided on the Cornish Constitutional Convention website.

  10. pauljohnston says:

    I have no interest whatever in the further Balkanisation of the UK by subdividing England. You’ll be advocating restoration of the Heptarchy next.

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