“Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again.” With apologies to Simon & Garfunkel, we note the post-referendum retrieval, from the very long grass in which it seemed to have been quietly resting, of the West Lothian/English Question (‘WLQ’). Oh dear.
The WLQ Pandora’s Box was opened by the Prime Minister in his Downing Street statement on the morning of Friday 19 September: “The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.” Ever since, the pundits – media and academic - have been frantically debating the procedural, constitutional and party political implications of this spanner in the post-referendum works, including its unilateral linkage or otherwise to the three party leaders’ ‘Vow’ on greater Scottish devolution published on 16 September.
All constitutional debate is welcome, especially if it engages the public. But a WLQ focus on further UK constitutional reform can be nothing but a disruptive and damaging distraction. Those of us who had always argued that WLQ was just one of those ‘constitutional anomalies’ common in the so-called British Constitution, which should be accepted, rather than something to be ‘solved’, have cause to worry. Like Lords reform, WLQ is both logically and politically insoluble under our present constitutional framework. If it is not to be ‘solved’ by the break-up of the Union, or by some form of genuine federalism (and where have the Lib Dems been on the latter during and after the referendum campaign?), it should not be treated as something which can be solved now by our political elite, especially under the present fevered circumstances.
In written and oral evidence to the McKay Commission, I argued – unsuccessfully – that the Committee, with such a high-powered membership, should not fall into the trap of trying to devise some clever, rational and ‘practical’ solution to WLQ, but should grasp the opportunity of examining the more genuine parliamentary and inter-parliamentary issues arising from devolution. Events seem to have borne out this warning, culminating in Sir William McKay’s extraordinarily endearing admission on BBC radio (as quoted in the print/online media eg The Guardian website, 21 September): "You can't lower any of our solutions, immediately and without amendment, into the present situation. They will have to be tweaked – a fairly hefty tweak, more a kick than a tweak."
What we have had confirmed in the immediate referendum aftermath is that WLQ is, for many politicians, merely a surrogate for the actual post-devolution ‘fairness’ issue: finance. In so far as the Barnett Formula’s continuance has been guaranteed by the party leaders ‘Vow’, it is the perceived unfairness of the post-devolution allocation of central funding among the various nations and regions of the UK that is the issue worthy of addressing and, if there is thought to be a problem, ‘solving’.
The various TV and radio vox pop sessions, and the pronouncements of the media, south of the border, have demonstrated how WLQ parliamentary procedural ‘unfairness’ and financial ‘unfairness’ have become conflated into a single alleged grievance – with even its own new shorthand term, ‘goodies’.
It is much easier to focus on a grievance if it can be explained in simple terms. Thus there was little public concern about the WLQ or English Question, until it was described in crude phrases like ‘English Votes for English Laws’. The Question as originally posed by Tam Dalyell in the 1970s was not even primarily addressed to that, being more concerned with the inability of the Scottish MPs to vote on devolved matters concerning their constituents, not on their continuing ability to vote on the equivalent English matters.
Thus far UK ‘devolution finance’ (to use a crude shorthand for all the various sub-national transfers etc) has been rather opaque. Who knows what the Barnett Formula actually is? Like its sub-national cousin, local government finance, it is as impenetrable as the proverbial Schleswig-Holstein question. While this allowed all sorts of guestimates to be bandied about as to Scotland’s ‘unfair share’ – remember Ken Livingstone’s during London Mayoral campaigns on how many billions goes from London to Scotland? – there was no real engagement or development of the debate in the public mind.
If methods were devised to make devolution-related financial transfers more transparent and simple to understand, there could be a genuine, meaningful public debate. Remember the seismic shift in local government finance when the opaqueness of domestic rates was replaced by the superficial simplicity and transparency of the poll tax? Instantly, taxpayers could quantify the financial cost of spending policies – and of transfers between areas and councils through RSG etc – in terms of ££s rather than ‘p in the £’ rateable values. Indeed, it was this transparency that helped kill the poll tax itself, and ultimately Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
While this may have short-term risks for the devolved nations, it would ultimately assist the maturing of the devolved arrangements as they develop. One glaring flaw in the original ‘settlement’ was the fact that the devolved bodies had powers to spend but not to raise the revenue required for that spending, barring a minor power not ever used. As that taxing side of the equation is enhanced, making them more responsible and publicly accountable for their spending policies, any Barnett-related unfairness should be reduced and possibly eliminated. With it would go, if done properly, apparent grievances of English taxpayers funding better quality services (free personal care, free prescriptions, no tuition fees etc) for the Scots, which is the genuinely corrosive risk to the current Union constitution.
So, forget WLQ, except as a party political punchbag, and focus on sub-national finance arrangements. The erosion, especially in the 1980s, of the post-war consensus (or acquiescence) in redistribution as a positive principle of public policy means that such debates on financial transfers from one part of the UK to another, and the like, will be difficult, with a greater need for those in favour of redistributive policies to make a strong case against those whose instinct is now that they should get back from the state all that they paid into it, and that their hard-earned money should not be given, without consent, to other areas or people. These are the proper political and constitutional ‘fairness’ arguments we should now be having.
Barry K Winetrobe has taught constitutional law and government for many years, and has written many articles and book chapters, and given evidence to parliamentary and other committees, on Scottish/UK constitutional developments.