In their Sep. 18 referendum, the Scots voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent against independence from the United Kingdom. This David Cameron, the British prime minister, said represented the “settled will” of the Scottish people that puts an end to the independence debate “for a generation.”
Well, perhaps this does officially end the independence debate in Scotland, but it will heat up the devolution debate in both Scotland and in England.
As part of the “No” campaign in Scotland, the three main Westminster parties made promises to devolve more powers to Holyrood (Scottish Parliament), and after Thursday’s “No” vote, Cameron was quick to say they would be “honoured in full,” with draft legislation ready in January.
Since the late 1990s, legislative powers have been transferred from the UK parliament in Westminster to a Scottish Parliament, a Northern Ireland Assembly and a Welsh Assembly creating devolved legislative bodies for those members of the Kingdom. This has, of course, begged the question: What of England?
Without a separate legislative body of its own, members of UK parliament from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales can vote on matters that affect only England. Is that really fair to the English?
It’s an old question. The underlying constitutional issue was raised by William Gladstone when, during a speech on the first Irish Home Rule bill in 1886, he said: “If Ireland is to have domestic legislation for Irish affairs they cannot come here for English or Scottish affairs.” [Wikipedia] There is even now a name for it: The West Lothian question.
David Cameron is reportedly under pressure from his own MPs who have warned that it is “inconceivable” that Scottish MPs would be able to continue voting on English affairs once tax-raising and other powers are passed to the Scottish Parliament.
A former cabinet minister, John Redwood, put it well when he said:
What we first of all need to ensure is that all these matters are settled in England by English MPs without the help and advice of their Scottish colleagues.
“We as the English Parliament must settle the English income tax rate. It would be quite inconceivable that Scottish MPs would vote on the income tax rate for England—that may be higher than the Scottish one—that they weren’t going to be paying.” [Source]
When I visited family in England in 2005, this was a question I heard discussed at the dinner table with a definite undertone suggesting the status quo could not stand indefinitely.
Now seems the right time for the English to have their fair share of devolution.