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The West Lothian answer

2011 September 9
by Paul Vallely

Sex is not the answer, said the American stand-up comedian Swami X. Sex is the question; Yes is the answer. Something similar might be said of the West Lothian Question on which the Government is to reincarnate that legendary political beast, a “commission of independent experts”.

The WLQ refers to the asymmetry that Scottish MPs can vote on, say, schools in England in which their constituents have no interest. But English MPs have no say on what happens in Scottish schools. This is not just a theoretical unfairness. The last government could not have pushed through controversial moves like tuition fees or foundation hospitals without Scotch, Welsh and Ulster votes since most English MPs opposed them.

The problem comes when you look at the alternatives. Fertile brains have come up with all manner of schemes to bar Scots from voting on matters that do not affect Scotland, to ban them from the parliamentary committee stage, to create an English Grand Committee, to require double majorities (don’t ask), to create English regional assemblies, a devolved English parliament, or dissolve the United Kingdom. In almost all of these the cure seems worse, or certainly more complicated, than the ailment.

The 19th century famously had a Schleswig-Holstein Question, which Lord Palmerston said was so complicated than only three men in Europe ever understood it: one was dead, one was mad, and the other had forgotten all about it. The best way to deal with the West Lothian Question, the former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine quipped, was not to ask it. He was right. Let sleeping Scots lie.

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