Monday, 22 September 2014

What about East Lothian and Midlothian?

The West Lothian question has been kicking around for many years as an unresolved issue; but just as there is more to Lothian than the western part, so there is more to this question than is usually asked.
The question generally concentrates on the legislative branch of government, and in that narrow context, it is hard to argue with the claim that it is unfair that MPs from outside England can vote on issues such as health and education which are, in their own areas, devolved to another legislature.  It’s made more complex by the different nature of the devolution settlements in the different parts of the UK, but the principle is quite clear.
The reverse problem applies, however, when it comes to the executive branch of government.  This side receives a lot less attention, because here it is England which gains and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland which lose out.  When the UK cabinet discusses the UK’s finances, or foreign affairs, or defence issues, the English ministers for health, education etc. can and do have a direct input to the discussions, whereas their Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish equivalents are shamelessly excluded.  This is just as unfair as the problem with the legislature.
The problem with the simplistic responses which are being suggested by most is that they are overlooking the real cause of the problem, which is that the House of Commons and the Cabinet are trying to do different and incompatible things.  The House of Commons is trying to be both a UK parliament and an English parliament, and the Cabinet is trying to be both a UK cabinet and an English cabinet.
English votes for English laws is a good slogan, and it’s hard to disagree.  It might even be made to work, as long as the party which has a majority in the UK also has a majority in England.  But it doesn’t solve the problem with the cabinet, and the idea that the interests and views of the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Ireland governments can ever be represented by the respective secretaries of state is complete nonsense.  They seem to spend much of their time telling those other governments that they’re doing the wrong things.
It’s not often that I find myself in agreement with even part of what David Davis says, but in an article in the Sunday Times yesterday, he said that “we have started down a road that will almost certainly lead to an English parliament, an English first minister, and an English cabinet”.  On that, I agree (although whether ‘England’ should be treated as a whole or as a number of regions is an open question.  For anyone wanting to see a stable federal solution, ‘regionalisation’ is likely to be the preferred option, but it’s a matter for the English to decide for themselves.) 
The real question is not what form the English legislature and executive take (they can keep their beloved Westminster for that, and simply elect members only from England) but what form the new federal structure should take.  Whilst the reserved matters – largely defence and foreign affairs – are very important ones, the volume of legislation is hardly enormous.  In their rush to cobble something (and we still don’t know what!) together to head off a yes vote, this is an area they haven’t even begun to think about.


Anonymous said...

I, too, suspect that England will end up with it's own form of parliament. But, for sure, England will never go down the route of 'regionalisation', no matter how unpalatable for others. Englishmen do not turn on Englishmen for the sake of politics. Football yes, politics no!

I suspect Scotland's problems are just beginning. Asking a small population to vote on something so divisive as independence was always bound to lead to difficulty. I foresee eventual partitioning, with England acting as chief protector for both sides. In other words the former Scottish nation exists in a permanent state of near civil war.

In Wales I hope to see something similar, meaning partitioning, but for rather different reasons. It is time the silent majority in Wales woke up and spoke up about matters which clearly do not bring them any benefit. To divide the country would seem the most sensible, and tax efficient, solution.

These really are interesting times.

John Dixon said...


More nonsense, I fear. What a vivid imagination you have.

1. Regionalisation is not about fighting amongst each other - that's a relationship which you've invented.

2. No-one other than you is arguing for partitioning anything, and insofar as there are differences, they're not simple geographical ones.

Anonymous said...

English regionalism only solves the West Lothian question if a) English regions have the same breadth/depth of devolution as Scotland / Wales / NI, and b) all of England is 'regionalised' in the same way. Any deviation from this symmetric model will always require that 'A.N.Other' legislature/executive has to legislate/govern on behalf of the 'less-devolved' regions in non-devolved competencies, or rule directly if some areas of England are not devolved at all. Now this legislature could be the 'UK' parliament/government, but then you simply re-introduce West Lothian 'lite', which doesn't seem like a sustainable solution to a question of democratic principle, or it could be an English parliament, which answers your democratic issue but (with regional assemblies below it and a UK parliament above it) is a practical abomination.

Labour have talked of "full" devolution to the English regions. But honestly, do they really want, and do they really believe that the people of England have any appetite for half a dozen regions with legal and fiscal jurisdiction, potentially different education, qualification and healthcare systems, different criminal justice systems and criminal law, different energy policies and planning systems? That is what full devolution means, that is what parity with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland means at a constitutional level (accepting that Silk 1 and 2 are fully implemented in due course).

If that is their vision, then yes, West Lothian can be removed as an issue to a great extent. But the further they roll back English regionalism from this 'full' model, the greater the residue of the West Lothian problem at Westminster. But of course, they don't mean anything like full devolution. They mean regional authorities with a small degree of fiscal flexibility, and planning and transport responsibilities. Something like London today, perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less...

People have claimed, and Labour are banking on the fact, that a degree of asymmetry can be absorbed by a UK parliament and tolerated by an English electorate. A small degree yes, but the massive, gargantuan asymmetry that they will create in reality simply postpones the question, not solves it. They perpetuate the underlying problem and introduce an expensive layer of governance in the middle.

Phil Davies

John Dixon said...

"English regionalism only solves the West Lothian question if a) English regions have the same breadth/depth of devolution as Scotland / Wales / NI, and b) all of England is 'regionalised' in the same way. "

I agree. And let's not forget the differences in the settlements between Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland....

Logic decrees that the only real solution is a fully federal one, with all the 'domestic' legislatures (whether England is one or a number is irrelevant in this sense regional) having identical powers. And some of the more thoughtful unionists seem to recognise that. However, neither logic nor thoughtfulness are in play at present; party political advantage is to the fore. So we're likely to end up with (another) fudge in which every piece of legislation going through the House of Commons has to be put through a complex analysis to decide which MPs are eligible to vote on it.

That only deals with the legislature, however. When it comes to the Executive, we need a similar analysis for every item on the cabinet's agenda to determine which ministers should withdraw because their remit only applies to matters which are devolved to other governments.

It's not too fanciful to suggest that the formula likely to be adopted in haste in order to 'save' the union will do more in the long run to hasten its demise than anything the Welsh and Scots can do. Perhaps Cameron will go down in history as the man who wrecked it after all.

Cneifiwr said...

Another aspect of the West Lothian question which needs to be asked is why should e.g. Kevin Brennan (Lab. Cardiff West) be shadow Minister for Schools when the only schools he would be responsible for are in England. Are the voters of Cardiff West really aware that they have elected someone whose main focus is irrelevant to them? And how do the English feel about this prospect?

Anonymous said...

I think you, like many, mistakenly think the Union is important to England and the English. It isn't.

Clearly those in Scotland see it as important. And I suspect the vast majority in Wales also see it as important. But why? Surely only because of English largesse.

Well, it seems England and the English are unwilling to carry on paying for our mistakes. And David Cameron has been told to do something about it. And do it fast.

Tough times mean tough luck, and I suspect Wales and Scotland are in for a bit of reality checking over the coming decades.

Walk away from the Union if you dare. If not, and you still want/need English money be ready to accept the new tough terms.

Peter Freeman said...

I can't help but wonder if the American experience would work in the UK.
The countries of the UK, including Cornwall, could be given their own legislatures with power to raise taxes and stimulate the economy within their borders. At the same time sending representatives to a central Parliament that enacts laws and regulations for the entire UK.
It appears an attractive solution. This is the system in Canada. While it resolves many of the problems of the regions it still allows for movements like the Quebecois to make their presence a powerful one in their region.

John Dixon said...

Anon 18:28,

So, the Union is so unimportant to the English that the leaders of the three UK parties rushed up to Scotland in a panic to try and save it? Clearly, therefore, whoever they were speaking for, it wasn't the 'English', on your analysis.

This is not the place for a detailed economic response to your comment about depending on "English" money; I'll just say that there are all sorts of reasons why the UK's economy is unbalanced, and that lack of balance affects parts of England, such as the north, as badly as it affects Wales and Scotland. There is nothing natural or inevitable about such imbalance, nor is it the result of disparities in ability and talent. It may not have been the intention of policy, but it's undoubtedly the result of policy.

John Dixon said...


I agree that a federal solution, of some sort, is now the only way for those who want to save the union to do so. The good news is that they seem unable or unwilling to recognise that fact themselves!

Anonymous said...

One of the main issues flagged up with "English Votes for English Laws" is that the bubget decisions made in devolved areas have a direct impact on the budgets for the devolved govts.

Would it be possible to come at it from the other direction. If all the devolved institutions moved to the reseverved powers model and those reserved powers were broadly the same for each devolved govt., then couldn't the UK MPs decide on a figure for total expenditure for the year and what portion of that went to reserved matters with the rest being divied out to the devolved institutions (including a de-facto English Parliment at Westminster) through some formula either related to a modified Barnet or a new needs based one?

That way when the English MPS meet for English only matters they'd have to work within the "English Budget" for devolved English matters?

Dai Twp

John Dixon said...


Lots of things could be made to work, but a lot of the workarounds seem to be trying to introduce what is, in essence, a federal structure without calling it that and without changing the executive branch.

Anonymous said...

It seems incredible I know, but I think a large part of Labour's failing in this area is due to ignorance rather than necessarily blind self-interest. I really don't think that rank and file members in England (and even some in Wales/Scotland) understand the extent of constitutional and legal divergence that has already taken place in Scot/Wales/NI, never mind what more may come as a result of the 'Vow'. They do not understand for example the implications of legal jurisdictional independence, the huge potential for structural and policy difference at an executive level, or the current and potential differences in society and culture that 'full' devolution brings.

I'm not sure they quite understand that even now Scot/Wales/NI are different states within a state.

If they do understand that and they genuinely want to see that extended to English regions, I admire their ambition and would never seek to prevent them doing it. But as a matter of courtesy I would simply ask a few pertinent questions.

Do the English people want to end 'England' as a legal/political reality? Since that is what 'fully' devolved English regionalism means?

Do they want to have a different education system in Manchester to that of Birmingham?

What exactly is an English region? Where do they begin and end? Is Stafford in the Midlands or in the North West? Does Oxford have more in common with Bristol or with Peterborough?

Can a geographical area that doesn't have a name or even a recognised boundary 'inspire' popular allegiance to its jurisdiction?

In most federal states in the world, there was a chicken before the egg, sometimes very ancient as in European states based on feudal fiefdoms, sometimes more recent such as the decentralised units of colony building in the USA, Canada and Australia. Can a federal egg be lain without a federal chicken?

Phil Davies

Anonymous said...

John - well done for raising the issue of current UK Cabinet actually being an mix of UK and English ministers. Although the unfairness of this seems obvious to me, I have never seen any mention made of it the press or media. A conspiracy of silence perhaps, or, as Phil Davies seems to suggest, an indication of the wholesale ignorance that surrounds devolution and the constituential issues that the current asymetrical system throws up.