The West Lothian question from the outside

The West Lothian question is an interesting window into British politics. The summary from Wikipedia:

The West Lothian question refers to whether MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, sitting in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, should be able to vote on matters that affect only England, while MPs from England are unable to vote on matters that have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

Take a moment to think about this. (If you’re British or otherwise familiar with the issue, try to step outside of that frame.) On the surface it seems perfectly reasonable to mandate that England-only laws get the same treatment from the UK parliament as the others. One possible counterargument is that, with England making up the major part of the UK at 83.9% of its total 2011 population, an English assembly would become the de facto decision-making body, although (a) constitutionally, matters that affect all the constituent countries are voted on by MPs from all of them and (b) the political parties can and usually do cross the internal borders, so this is probably of minimal practical concern. There might be other counterarguments that are also reasonable from a third-party view; I’m not an expert on the topic and I’m open to making a different judgment with more data. But country X votes for country X laws makes sense in the abstract.

So why is it a simmering, unresolved issue? I got a vague sense of it reading the article until somewhere after the halfway point when it was stated clearly: the Labour [sic] Party is disproportionately well-represented outside England and resists changing this part of the system. In fact, on some votes on England-only issues they don’t get a majority of the English MPs but get a majority overall. Maybe their justifications are the most convincing but they don’t seem particularly strong to me, an outside observer with no dog in the fight. (Or if I have one I can’t identify which one it is.)

As an aside, this is particularly interesting in light of the Scottish referendum on independence last year. My own personal preference is for more and smaller states rather than fewer and larger states, ceteris paribus, although in this specific case I wasn’t even remotely informed and didn’t get a vote anyway. I read a variety of takes, including some making the classical liberal argument for voting No in the referendum by saying essentially that the SNP is less classically liberal than what they’re getting now, so even if independence is appealing in the abstract staying in the union was the least bad option. As Scotland was long dominated by Labour and as Labour is steadily losing ground to SNP, maybe this will tip the scales in the future.

The West Lothian question is reminiscent of an issue in US politics, but I’ll save that for a future post.


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