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Mark Elliott: Devolution, the West Lothian Question, and the nature of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom

mark1Earlier this week, the McKay Commission published its Report on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons. The Commission’s terms of reference required it to determine “how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom, following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales”. In other words, the Commission was established to do that which Lord Irvine of Lairg (in)famously counselled against: viz to tackle the West Lothian Question. (Irvine reportedly said that the best thing to do about that question was to “stop asking it”.) There are various ways in which the question can be framed. The Commission, for its part, took the central issue to be the possibility that “MPs from outside England could help determine laws that apply in England, while MPs from England would have no reciprocal influence on laws outside England in policy fields for which the devolved institutions would now be responsible”.

The notion of reciprocity—or, more accurately, the lack of reciprocity that is a function of the UK’s asymmetric model of devolution—has always been at the heart of the West Lothian Question. Viewed more broadly, the fact that the West Lothian Question has arisen and remained unanswered for so long is reflective of a typically British approach to constitutional reform—one that treats the constitution as a work-in-progress, and which accepts disjointedness and inelegance as the price of pragmatism and speed. Within that tradition of constitutional reform, loose ends are an inevitable result of an underlying reluctance to confront big-picture questions. The McKay Commission’s approach to the West Lothian Question is of a piece with this dominant approach to constitutionalism in the UK, in that it proposes a practical solution that leaves the some fundamental questions unanswered.

The Commission’s guiding principle—and where that principle did not lead it

The Commission is clear that doing nothing should not be regarded as a viable option. In doing so, they rightly reject the view (advanced by Vernon Bogdanor in evidence to the Commission) that because England has a de facto predominance in the UK, it has “no need to beat the drum or blow the bugle”. Bogdanor argues that if England seeks to exploit its inherent dominance, it may strain the Union to “breaking point”. But this overlooks the potentially fissiparous effect of leaving the West Lothian Question hanging and thereby stoking a sense of disempowerment. This is a sphere in which perception matters: and the risk is that England may perceive itself to be (as Richard Rawlings, “Concordats of the Constitution” (2000) 116 LQR 257, put it) “the spectre at the feast”.

Instead, the Commission concludes that: “Decisions at the United Kingdom level having a separate and distinct effect for a component part of the United Kingdom should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of the elected representatives for that part of the United Kingdom.” The Commission recommends that this principle be adopted by means of a resolution of the House of Commons. The question then became how this guiding principle should be given practical effect.

One obvious issue is that the “separate and distinct effect” formulation is undeniably vague. As Brigid Hadfield, “Devolution, Westminster and the English Question” [2005] PL 286, put it, “What … is an English law? If it cannot be defined with sufficient precision, then non-English MPs cannot fairly be precluded from voting on it.” By advocating the vaguer “separate and distinct effect” formulation, the Commission implicitly acknowledges that the matter is a complex one in relation to which judgement would have to exercised, rather than something that can be reduced to a clear-cut formula. But acknowledging complexity is not the same thing as resolving it, and the application of the “separate and distinct” criterion would doubtless excite controversy. Such definitional difficulties are not good reasons for shelving attempts to resolve the West Lothian Question (on the ground that it is all too difficult), but there is clearly further work to be done here.

Leaving to one side the inevitable questions of categorisation, how does the Commission propose that its guiding principle should be implemented? It rejects the creation of a separate English legislature, arguing that it might have a destabilising effect and would likely require wholesale constitutional reform. What, though, of the more modest proposal that only MPs representing English constituencies (or MPs representing English and Welsh constituencies) should be allowed to vote on laws likely to have a “separate and distinct effect” upon England (or upon England and Wales)?

The Commission rejects this option too. Its reasons for doing so are largely pragmatic. In particular, it fears that different “classes” of MPs would be created, and that the possibility of “deadlock” would arise: a Government might enjoy a majority in Parliament as a whole whilst lacking an outright majority of English MPs. Such a scenario is alien to the standard modus operandi of the UK system, in which (typically) a single party has an overall majority such that the Executive is able to drive its business through Parliament with (at least a degree of) impunity. In any event, the flip-side of the “deadlock” problem is arguably more profound. It concerns the dual functions ascribed to the post-devolution UK Parliament, whereby it is required to sustain not only the UK Government but also the de facto English Government. This is the sort of big-picture issue that the McKay Commission fails squarely to confront—a point that I develop below.

The Commission’s key proposals

Having rejected an English Parliament and “English votes for English laws” (along with various other options), the Commission concludes that its guiding principle should be implemented (first) by giving a voice to English (or English and Welsh) MPs in relation to relevant Bills, and (second) by making it politically difficult—but not impossible, either as a matter of law or parliamentary procedure—to enact relevant Bills in the absence of majority support on the part of relevant MPs.

As to the first point, the Report says that “views from England
(or England-and-Wales) should be known before a final decision is made about something with a separate and distinct effect”. The Commission identifies a range of ways in which this might be achieved. One possibility is modelled on “legislative consent motions” whereby, under the Sewel convention, the consent of a devolved legislature may be sought to the enactment of UK legislation encroaching upon devolved competence. The McKay Commission envisages that an analogous procedure might be used in relation to UK legislation liable to have a “separate and distinct” effect upon England (or England and Wales), the suggestion being that a Grand Committee consisting of all MPs representing relevant constituencies would render an opinion (by means of a resolution) as to whether the (relevant parts of the) Bill should be proceeded with. Other options identified by the Commission include debating a motion “expressing
 an opinion on that part of a bill relating separately and distinctly to England (or England-and-Wales)”, and the committal of relevant Bills to specially-constituted Public Bill Committees in which the party balance would reflect that which obtained in England (or England and Wales) rather than in the whole House. The Report does not express a firm conclusion as to which of these options should be taken forward; it identifies further questions that would need to be resolved, and suggests that the Government should put its preferred options to the House of Commons, and that a Select Committee should subsequently advise the House on points of detail.

So much for a distinctive English (or English and Welsh) “voice”. What if that voice (by a majority) opposes a Bill or relevant parts of it? Here, the Commission is very clear that MPs representing English (or English and Welsh) constituencies should not have a power of veto. It therefore rejects a “double-lock” procedure, under which it would be necessary, where relevant, to secure the approval not only of a majority of all MPs but also the approval of a majority of English (or English and Welsh) MPs. This reflects the Commission’s view that once the views of MPs representing particularly affected parts of the country have been heard and considered, “the UK majority should prevail, not least in order to retain the UK Government’s accountability at election time for decision-making during its time in office”.

However, at the same time as rejecting a “double-lock”, the Commission proposes a “double-count” procedure. This would involve making public not just the names of MPs who voted for and against the Bill, but also the constituencies they represent—with a view to determining whether relevant Bills (or provisions) attracted the support of a majority of MPs representing relevant constituencies. Although no legal or procedural consequences would ensue if a majority of the latter type were not secured, the Commission envisages that “if a government was seen to have failed to attract the support of a majority of MPs from England (or England-and-Wales) for business affecting those interests, it would be likely to sustain severe political damage”. The intention, therefore, is to disincentivise the use of MPs from unaffected (or less affected) parts of the country to push through legislation against the wishes of the majority of MPs representing particularly affected parts of the UK, whilst stopping short of preventing such a practice.

In preferring double-count over double-lock, the Commission cites its own guiding principle—that decisions “should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of the elected representatives for that part of the United Kingdom” (emphasis added). The Commission’s defence of this position rests upon the principle of reciprocity. Devolved legislatures’ wishes with respect to incursions by Westminster into areas of devolved competence are normally respected (via the use of legislative consent motions under the Sewel convention), but are not necessarily respected (because Westminster could, at least in theory, override their wishes by asserting its legislative supremacy, which is undiminished by devolution).

By the same token, while English (or English and Welsh) MPs should be able to object to UK legislation likely to have “separate and distinct” effects upon England (or England and Wales), they should not thereby be able to veto such Bills. Instead, the consequences of oibjecting—like the consequences of a devolved legislature refusing to endorse a legislative consent motion—should play out on the political stage. The essence of the proposal, therefore, is to place (for these purposes) the group of MPs representing English (or English and Welsh) constituencies in a position vis-à-vis the (full) Westminster Parliament that is analogous to the position that devolved legislatures occupy in relation to Westminster. And, as the Commission notes, the analogy would likely be extended by the emergence of a constitutional convention corresponding to the Sewel convention. (It is worth noting in passing that the likely prescriptiveness of such a convention would mean that a double-lock requirement might well obtain in effect if not in form, just as the UK Parliament’s capacity unilaterally to interfere in devolved affairs is rendered essentially notional by the Sewel convention.)  

The bigger picture

The analogy outlined above is persuasive as far as it goes—but, arguably, it does not go far enough because it takes insufficient account of two sets of distinctions and the relationship between them. First, there is the distinction between the twin roles performed by all Westminster-style legislatures: viz legislating, on the one hand, and determining the composition of and sustaining the Executive, on the other. Second, there is the distinction between the way in which the Westminster Parliament, on the one hand, and the devolved legislatures, on the other, discharge those roles. The McKay Commission’s focus is upon the way in which the Westminster Parliament discharges its first—i.e. legislative—function. But there is insufficient consideration of the second function—i.e. determining the composition of and sustaining the Executive.

The analogy between devolved legislatures and Westminster breaks down because, unlike the former, the latter has to determine the composition of and sustain a Janus-like Executive: one that functions both as the Government of the United Kingdom and as the Government of England. Within this distinction is concealed the West Lothian Question writ large. As conventionally framed, the West Lothian Question is concerned with micro-level (albeit important) questions concerning Parliament’s legislative function and its exercise in relation to individual Bills. But a macro-level question also arises. Because the Westminster Parliament must sustain not only the UK Executive but also the de facto English Executive, no amount of finessing of the procedure whereby legislation is enacted can get around the possibility that elections to the UK Parliament may yield an Executive that does not accurately reflect the wishes of voters in England (as refracted through Parliament as an electoral college). Indeed, the 2010 election is a case in point, in that the Conservative Party won an overall majority of English but not UK constituencies.

It is in this sense that the McKay Commission might be said to have failed fully to grasp the nettle. The underlying issue that is never fully grappled with is that the post-devolution Westminster Parliament is required to perform a set of functions that may be in tension with one another. And this raises questions about our constitutional architecture more profound than those addressed by the Commission. It does not, of course, follow that that particular nettle should be grasped. As noted at the outset of this post, a certain degree of messiness is an unavoidable byproduct of the approach that characterises constitutional reform in the UK—and history teaches that the results of that approach do not necessarily yield a constitution lacking workability or public acceptance.

Viewed thus, the McKay Commission’s proposed solution to the West Lothian Question is of a piece with the type of constitutionalism that generated the question in the first place. It provides a partial, practical workaround to a problem created by a disjointed set of constitutional changes. Whether all of this showcases the merits of the UK’s highly pragmatic approach to constitutional reform or reflects a failure to confront difficult and fundamental questions is a matter of perspective. In any event, the McKay Commission’s Report shows that Lord Irvine was wrong; the West Lothian Question needed to be asked, and we could do a lot worse than answer it by implementing the Commission’s proposals. It is likely, however, that the concern underpinning Irvine’s reluctance to engage with the question derived from his recognition that once one begins to pick away at the loose edges of the constitution, it may quickly begin to unravel. It follows, then, that while asking the West Lothian Question is not unwise, thinking about it too hard might well be discomforting.

Mark Elliott is Reader in Public Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge. 

Suggested citation: M. Elliott, ‘Devolution, the West Lothian Question, and the nature of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom’  UK Const. L. Blog (26th March 2013) (available at

19 comments on “Mark Elliott: Devolution, the West Lothian Question, and the nature of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom

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  2. Dawn Oliver
    March 29, 2013

    Elliott’s is an excellent discussion of the issues discussed by Mackay. Another one is that if the government with a majority in the House of Commons did not have a majority among MPs sitting for English or English and Welsh constitutuences, and if the Mackay proposals were put in place, it could become politically impossible for any legislation for England/ England and Wales to be passed. Mackay focusses on empowering MPs from these countries to object to if not to veto proposed legislation. But what if the majority of MPs in these countries – and public/voter opinion in those countries – were persuaded that certain new laws needed to be passed, laws which the UK government did not support for party political reasons? There would be no mechanism for getting such new laws before Parliament and passed, especially if they required public expenditure. Unlike the position in the other countries in the UK England would have (and has) no scope to take initiatives independently of the UK government.
    Dawn Oliver

  3. Constitutional Law Group
    March 29, 2013

    Dawn and Mark both make powerful points. It is surprising, perhaps, how little attention this issue is being given. Though there is much said about Scottish independence, the Human Rights Act, and Lords reform, I suspect that all of these issues will end up having little real impact in the longer term. If I were to make a prediction, the biggest constitutional crisis of the next twenty years or so will come when the Labour Party controls the majority of seats in Parliament because of its support in Scotland and Wales, whilst the Conservative Party secures a majority of English seats.

    The protections advocated by McKay would either (as Dawn suggests) lead to deadlock or, perhaps more likely, would be swept aside by the incoming government.

    I wonder if the public’s failure to worry about this is a manifestation of the common English error of thinking that the United Kingdom Parliament is an English Parliament. It isn’t – and the English may be surprised and disappointed when this is suddenly brought home to them.

    Nick Barber

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  5. Henry Moore
    April 7, 2013

    I am a big fan of Dr Elliott’s contributions to the field of public law, and his attempts to make it accessible for all. I also really appreciate his talent as a lecturer, having attended his lectures (21, was it?) for Part IA students this year.

    It is with the greatest respect, then, that I question his take on the implications for a ‘de facto English Government’. I am not sure whether Parliament really would be required to ‘sustain’ it as well as the Westminster government. The Westminster government is, of course, sustained by consitutional conventions and some codified procedural matters. These reflect the popular mandate indirectly conferred upon it by its majority, or plurality, of seats.

    By contrast, no such formal conventions or procedures currently sustain an English Government, which is probably why Dr Elliott has labelled it ‘de facto’. As such, if the constitution, through Parliament, had to sustain this English Government, then it would surely cease to be ‘de facto’.

    Therefore, the only thing that would need to sustain the ‘de facto’ government would be the party, or parties, constituting it. Taking the current situation, the Conservative Party could use its whips on its English MPs to win votes on ‘separate and distinct’ matters with ‘impunity,’ and thus effectively become the ‘de facto’ English Government. There would be no notion of an English ‘motion of confidence,’ as it would not be a formally elected government, being ‘de facto’.

    As such, there seems to me no reason at this stage to criticise the Commission for failing to address this aspect. It would be a matter of practicality and political consitutionalism. Provided that matters of confidence were kept out of ‘separate and distinct’ English matters, there would be no major constitutional issue at hand if this Conservative ‘de facto’ English Government took an opinion contrary to that of the coalition, and was subsequently overruled by the wider Westminster government or Parliament. Such a decision would, like a rejection of the Scottish Parliament’s views, be politically difficult to justify, but equally as possible in theory.

    As such, the practicality of politics and popular opinion would take care of that particular question. If practices gradually crystallised into conventions, then they would be conventions reflecting the appropriate means of sustaining the ‘de facto’ English Government, which might then become considerably more ‘de jure’ in nature.

    -Henry Moore (Sidney Sussex College)

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  10. Doghouse
    September 19, 2014

    The concept that it is almost intractably hard hard to identify laws that have a “separate and distinct” effect on England in particular is totally spurious. We already have already addressed the problem three times successfully, in that the devolved legislating powers of the respective representative bodies in Scotland, Wales and NI are well-defined in law. “English” law is therefore that which a comparable “English Assembly” should be defined to have powers to legislate on (what those might be is neither here nor there – that is a matter for legislation, just as it was in the case of Stormont, the Sottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly). Whether those powers are then exercised by an actual “English Assembly” under some title or other, or by an English subset the UK Parliament sitting as such is another question.

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