Scotland voted No last Thursday, much to the chagrin of patriotic nationalists and hopeful observers alike. The reasons for the vote are as yet unclear, but surely they have something to do with David Cameron’s promise of significantly increased devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. But Mr. Cameron, in a remarkably adept twisting of the situation, has vowed that Scottish devolution must be tied to devolution for England itself, which might well result in the creation of an English Parliament. Such an action would be without precedent and would go further in destroying the historical constitution of the United Kingdom more than any Scottish Yes vote could have done. But in the current political climate, English devolution is an unavoidable move to solve the constitutional crisis now confronting the United Kingdom, and Mr. Cameron ought to press for it with vigor and purpose.
Mr. Cameron’s proposals for English devolution aim to solve an age-old problem in British politics: the West Lothian Question, named after the Scottish borough of the MP Tam Dalyell, who made the question famous in a speech in the House of Commons in 1977 (though the issue had existed before then.) The West Lothian Question simply stated: Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have devolved assemblies; why should MPs from those three nations be able to vote on bills at Westminster that concern only England, though the English have no say in bills that concern only the three devolved nations?
This question and the paradoxes it poses are integral to the understanding of devolutionary politics in the United Kingdom, and any observer ought to investigate the history of the Question and devolution. The issue is not merely ideological, either, and comes into play particularly under a Labour government, which often relies on a large contingent of Scottish MPs for its majority. In 2004, under Tony Blair, Parliament passed a bill raising tuition fees in England by a margin of 316 to 311. A majority of English MPs voted in the negative, but Scottish votes ensured the bill’s passage. The injustice of the situation was perpetuated by the fact that Scottish students pay no tuition at Scottish universities, which are run from Holyrood, while English students must pay a high rate. England voted against raising tuition fees in England, but Scotland ensured that Parliament would ignore the democratic will of the English people.
The West Lothian Question first arose in the context of Irish Home Rule. One portion of that dramatic debate centered around the question of whether Irish MPs would continue to sit at Westminster in the case of the creation of an Irish Parliament. In 1886, it proved an intractable, unresolvable question, one that would doom the Bill to abject failure in the House of Commons. Prime Minister William Gladstone, the architect of the bill, proposed the total exclusion of Irish MPs from Westminster. The Unionist Joseph Chamberlain—who started 1886 as a Liberal and ended effectively as a Conservative—retorted with the claim that, should Westminster ever decide to levy a tax in Ireland, this would amount to nothing less than taxation without representation. But Chamberlain knew that a solution that would retain Irish MPs would prove just as unpalatable, for the Irish would exercise a vote over English affairs that the English would not exercise over the Irish—precisely the situation between England and Scotland today. The 1886 debate over Home rule was the beginning of modern British politics; the modern Conservative and Unionist Party emerged from that bill’s defeat. The questions that the West Lothian Question posed then have never been resolved, and are precisely the same as those with which British politicians must grapple today.
The debates over devolution have had an intriguing history since the First Irish Home Rule Bill. Perhaps its most unexpected contributor was Winston Churchill, who as a young Liberal in 1913, during the furor over the Third and Fourth Irish Home Rule Bills, announced his support not only for Scottish, Welsh, and Irish devolution, but for devolution of parts of England as well—the establishment of multiple legislatures throughout England in a manner based on the United States. This view, however odd it may sound coming from Churchill, is similar to the sort of devolution proposed by Lord Adonis, a Labour peer, earlier this year. Lord Adonis urged the government to devolve increased power in the areas of transit and economic development to cities—London, of course, but also Manchester, Sheffield, and Leeds. This position stands diametrically opposed to Margaret Thatcher’s actions; during her ministry she attacked local authorities, typically controlled by leftist commissions, with zeal. She went as far as to abolish the Greater London Council, leaving London without a local government until Labour re-established it in 2000. So, it appears, both Labour and the Conservatives have a vision of devolution for the United Kingdom, but in Labour’s case it is a city-based vision, whereas with the Conservatives it is England that takes the center role: a view, perhaps, based on an incipient sense of English nationalism.
We must consider, too, the effects of Mr. Cameron’s proposals on the historical constitution and character of the United Kingdom as a centralized state. Had Scotland voted “Yes,” a fully independent Scottish Parliament would have sat at Holyrood for the first time in three hundred years. Their No vote has provoked a possibility even more astounding—that some form of an English Parliament, representing England and England only, might sit at Westminster for the first time since the annexation of Wales in the 1530s. If a Scottish Yes would have broken the historical constitution of the United Kingdom, then surely a Scottish No, should Mr. Cameron’s proposals pass, has utterly demolished it, a process that had already begun with Tony Blair’s devolutions. We should view this challenge to the status quo with wariness, for the United Kingdom stands on the brink of becoming a fully federal entity, unlike anything it has ever been before.
But we cannot and must not let any sort of romantic, nostalgic opposition defeat Mr. Cameron’s proposals. Yes, he will destroy the deeply treasured historical constitution of the United Kingdom—the unity state composed of four nations under the direction of Westminster—but the time has come for such a federalization. At this point it is simply unavoidable. Scotland voted Yes after repeated promises that Westminster would devolve increased powers, including increased tax-raising powers, to Holyrood; Conservatives, Labour, and Lib Dems must ensure that legislation make good on this promise, lest they betray the Scots and refuse to honor their own vows. I cannot emphasize this point enough—that Westminster, after having promised increased devolution to the Scots, must now give it to them. Such is the nature of promises.
Increased devolution to Holyrood, especially of tax-raising powers, cannot be allowed to proceed alone, though, for doing so would perpetuate the greatest systematic inequality in British politics—that the citizens of the three devolved nations have powers over England life that the English do not exercise over the devolved nations. The existence of this gaping, unjust inequality must end. So Mr. Cameron is entirely right to tie Scottish devolution to the condition that English devolution, or some sort of “English votes for English laws,” also occur. And the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and Labour must accept and pass this proposal as quickly as possible: a measure of such consequence would be best as a tri-partisan coalition vote.
But Mr. Miliband has come out against English devolution. He thus opposes equality for all citizens of the United Kingdom. Surely this will backfire against Labour—and this suggests a sort of political genius on Mr. Cameron’s end—for they now oppose devolution, though Tony Blair’s Labour government initiated the devolutionary process, and they appear to support the continued inferiority of English citizens in British politics. Should Mr. Miliband become a pariah in England for this, let it be so. He would deserve scorn should he leave his stance unchanged. Mr. Cameron, meanwhile, merits considerable praise. He is the first figure in modern British politics to propose a lasting solution to the constitutional crisis precipitated by the West Lothian Question. He would bring full equality of all citizenry, sorely missing since Labour’s devolutions in the late 1990s, back to England once more. He would take the nature of United Kingdom into uncharted territory, which will undoubtedly cause worry and concern, but it is the necessary move. I applaud him for his political audacity. I can only hope that Parliament will follow his lead.