Scots seek more power after 'No' vote – but what about the English?

Britain's three major party leaders vowed to devolve more power to Scotland in the run-up to its independence vote. But why should Scotland have both more say over its own laws and on legislation that affects only the English?

Scott Heppell/AP
A Saltire and Union Jack flag hang side by side on a building in Edinburgh, Scotland, Friday, Sept. 19, 2014.

The Scottish public has spoken, and independence is off the table. And in the lead-up to the vote, Scotland was promised greater powers "devolved" from London to the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. So, crisis averted, yes? 

Not really. While it's true that the prospect of an independent Scotland is no longer imminent, the referendum has fueled a new, and no less prickly debate over Britain's system of governance and the nagging question of whether Britain's Scottish minority enjoys greater political powers than its English majority. 

What was 'the vow' made to Scots?

Just days before the Scottish vote, Britain's three major party leaders – Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband, and Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – made a vow. All three promised that should Scots vote "no," the politicians would work together to implement greater "devolution" of powers from Westminster (the UK's seat of power) to the Scottish Parliament.

At the time, "the vow" was politically expedient and apparently checked a late surge by the "Yes" campaign. But now it's causing political headaches for all three parties, particularly the Conservatives and Labour, by bringing the "West Lothian question" to the fore of British politics.

What is the 'West Lothian question'?

MPs from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales vote in Westminster on matters that only affect England. But why can't MPs from England do the same on matters that affect only Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales? This question was first posed in 1977 by an MP from West Lothian, a district in Scotland, hence the name. 

To understand the West Lothian question, one must first understand some basic facts about how Britain's national and regional parliaments work. The body that most people outside Britain think of as the Parliament is that which sits in Westminster, London. This legislature's members represent all of Britain's four constituent nations – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – and passes legislation that affects the whole of the country. 

But in addition to the Parliament in Westminster, there are three regional parliaments: the Northern Ireland Assembly, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Scottish Parliament. Each has powers (of varying extents) to pass laws specific to its region, independent of Westminster. This leaves the populations in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales with two sets of parliamentarians representing them: those in Westminster on the national stage, and those in their regional parliaments.

England, whose 54 million people make up the vast majority of Britain's 64 million inhabitants, have only a single Parliament to represent them: Westminster. 

Why is it coming up now?

The prospect of new powers for Scotland – "the vow" – has understandably raised hackles in England, where critics say Scotland has been promised oversized power in Britain when compared to its modest 5.3 million inhabitants.

Mr. Cameron has seized on that criticism – some of which was directed at him – as an opportunity to finally address the "West Lothian question." On Friday, he used the referendum to pivot to demands that the English should have more and exclusive power to make their own laws independent of the rest of the nation.

"The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer," Cameron said. "So, just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland."

Essentially, Cameron linked the devolution promised to Scotland with a new, as yet undiscussed English devolution.

So, what's wrong with that?

Linking Scotland's devolution to an English devolution raises a host of problems.

For starters, English devolution is politically explosive. The Conservatives draw much of their support from England, compared to Labour, which is popular in Scotland. So the creation of an English parliament or, alternatively, preventing non-English MPs from voting on English-only matters in Westminster, would give more clout to the Conservatives, also known as the Tories. The biggest loser would be Labour, which has some 40 Scottish MPs, the largest Scottish contingent in Westminster. Labour would find it much harder to form a majority government in Westminster under a devolved system. These implications put a political spin on Cameron's answer to the "West Lothian question." 

At the same time, Cameron is looking over his shoulder at the populist UK Independence Party, which has been shaving off support from the Tories in recent years. The issue of English home rule, should Cameron not address it, would be a powerful wedge issue for UKIP to carve further into the Tories' support.

All of which the question of English devolution looks set for a long slog in Parliament. And that raises another problem: By linking English devolution to Scottish devolution, Cameron appears to be putting the latter off, and breaking his vow to the Scots. The defeated "Yes" campaign is already crying foul. Its long-time leader, former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, said that Scotland could even declare independence without a referendum, should his Scottish National Party sweep elections next year.

Mr. Miliband, the Labour leader, is already under pressure from his own party on the question of English devolution. Miliband has avoided publicly addressing the issue, but other Labour leaders, including Ben Bradshaw, a former UK culture secretary, has said that the answer to English home rule "has to be yes."

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