English Only, Britain's Version

The growing dispute over the ability of MPs from other countries to vote on England's laws is a potential political crisis for Blair

Returning to my native England after 30 years of living and working abroad, I was surprised to see how English nationalism had apparently blossomed. In the mid-1970s, English people wanting to flaunt their patriotism would fly the familiar British red, white, and blue Union flags. But when I returned this spring, it was flags of St. George, patron saint of England—more than 10 million of them according to marketers—that fluttered from cars, trucks, and houses across the country.

The occasion for this display of English pride was the run-up to the soccer World Cup in Germany. Cynical friends told me the flags of St. George would quickly disappear if England got booted out of contention for the World Cup. How right they were.

But there's one aspect of English nationalism that won't go away. It's called the "West Lothian Question." It got that strange moniker because it was first posed by Tam Dalyell, a former Member of Parliament for that part of Scotland. It boils down to this: Why should a Scottish MP sitting in the House of Commons be allowed to vote on legislation affecting only England, while English MPs can't vote on a wide range of domestic issues (such as education and health policy) affecting Scotland, which are now decided by the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh created in 1998?

This is no dry-as-dust constitutional conundrum. According to many political experts, it has the potential to precipitate a political crisis or at least major problems for Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government. "The West Lothian Question is very likely to come to the fore in Labour's third term," Meg Russell and Guy Lodge, researchers at University College London's School of Public Policy, argued in a report in January.


  Already, new Conservative Party leader David Cameron has launched a campaign with the rallying cry "English votes on English laws." Conservative MPs from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will in the future abstain from voting on any purely English legislation. Furthermore, Lord Baker, another Conservative who was a member of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Cabinets, is promoting a bill that would enable the Speaker of the House of Commons to certify that certain legislation affected only England, thus restricting voting on it to MPs for English constituencies.

These moves are largely partisan, designed to embarrass Gordon Brown, Britain's Finance Minister and heir apparent to Blair, to the maximum. Brown, a Scot representing a Scottish constituency, would be prevented from voting on major parts of his program in the unlikely event that Baker's bill becomes law.

So far, the problem mainly causes worries among political insiders, the media, and constitutional experts. That could change, says Mark Gill, head of political research at the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute in London, if "there is some controversial bill affecting England alone that the government could only pass with Scottish and Welsh MPs' support."


  That's not as far-fetched as it might sound. Two important and controversial laws passed in 2003 and 2004 relied precisely on non-English votes for passage. One, which imposed a hike of as much as 267% in tuition fees at English universities to a maximum of $5,500 a year, passed the Commons by a 28-vote majority. But the government was defeated by two votes counting just English MPs. The year before, some major National Health Service reforms would have suffered a crashing 17-vote defeat, instead of the 17-vote majority they obtained, if voting had been confined to English MPs.

Since the 2005 General Election, the chances of such close calls have increased considerably. Labour's overall majority in the House of Commons dropped to 64, from 165 previously. In England alone, Labour has a 43-seat majority, vs. 117. One early victim of the new electoral math is likely to be an ambitious Blair plan to reform policing in England by amalgamating the dozens of different police authorities that cover the country. It is almost universally opposed in the English regions.

However, the biggest bust-up on the horizon is over pocketbook issues. Under a 1978 carve-up of government revenues, Scotland now gets a more than $20-billion-a-year grant from the British Treasury for spending on the likes of health, education, and transportation. That works out at just under $15,300 per Scot, or about $2,800 more than the English get. Not surprisingly, some 70% of English voters think this subsidization of Scotland by other taxpayers should end, according to a survey by London-based pollster YouGov for the Daily Telegraph earlier this month. An even bigger number—74%—of Scots think it's just fine. Advisers to Brown have been hinting that a reform of the formula would be high on his agenda if he succeeds Blair as Prime Minister.


  To some extent, English voters have only themselves to blame for the situation in which they find themselves. In 2004, they overwhelmingly rejected the idea of setting up a regional assembly with devolved powers for the Northeast of England. The same would probably happen in a rerun. A July Ipsos MORI poll shows that just 14% of adults still support regional assemblies.

The same poll highlighted some other significant trends. It showed there is increasing dissatisfaction with the present setup. Support for a purely English Parliament has grown, with more than a quarter favoring it. Backing for that approach leaps to 41% when the question is framed in terms of an English Parliament having the same powers as the Scottish Parliament, which, unlike the National Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, can levy taxes.

If that wish is ever granted, the English have plenty of flags to put out that they have left over from the World Cup. Meantime, as UCL researchers Russell and Lodge note, they and the rest of the British will just have to learn to live with this constitutional anomaly, as they do with many others.

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