The Scottish referendum saw a level of political participation unrivalled in recent years. The population was energised not just in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom and it has sparked an unanticipated constitutional debate.
The West Lothian question asks why English MP’s should tolerate Scottish MP’s voting on English issues while they have no say on the same matters in Scotland. It is a historic question that dates back to the first Irish Home Rule bill in 1886 when William Gladstone argued:
“If Ireland is to have domestic legislation for Irish affairs they cannot come here for English or Scottish affairs.”
The same logic was not applied to Scotland and, in a constitutional sense, England has been under-represented ever since the devolution bills of 1997. The West Lothian question is no longer a question, it is an ignored reality. In the wake of a referendum deciding Scotland’s future, attention has shifted towards England.
There is one fundamental problem. The West Lothian question is easy to ask but it is another matter entirely to answer it. A separate English parliament seems unlikely due to the additional cost and bureaucracy yet change, it seems, is on its way and so is heated debate. The three main parties are already bickering about reform despite weeks of apparent unity during the referendum campaign.
Federalism is one option. We could devolve powers to regional assemblies to vote on local issues, thereby answering the West Lothian question. The electorate could also vote for MPs to sit in the Westminster parliament in the same way that the Scottish are represented by MSPs and MPs. There are many options and the preferred system can be debated and perfected with time. The fact that we are having this debate at all is the important thing.
Alex Salmond, despite his obvious disappointment, gracefully accepted Scotland’s decision to reject independence. He is a divisive figure and will continue to be so as he looks to hold Westminster to its promises. However, as Tony Blair once said: “when you decide you divide and that’s just the way of it.” Salmond decided. It wouldn’t be surprising if he goes down in history for engineering more change than even he suspects.
The Scottish referendum campaign has prompted the British electorate to ask questions that have long been ignored. Constitutional change is overdue but it is on its way and in this climate of reform perhaps we can finally review the state of The House of Lords too. Whatever the outcome, it is wonderful to see these questions finally being raised and fascinating to anticipate the results. We are on the cusp of witnessing historic change. Thank you Alex Salmond, thank you Scotland.