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Barry Winetrobe: The West Lothian Dead End: Asking the Wrong Question after the Scottish Referendum

BarryBarry Winetrobe argues that the sudden focus on the ‘West Lothian/English Question’ is misconceived, and that it is just a surrogate for the more salient issue of sub-national financial arrangements.

Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” With apologies to Simon & Garfunkel, we note the post-referendum retrieval, from the very long grass in which it seemed to have been quietly resting, of the West Lothian/English Question (‘WLQ’). Oh dear.

The WLQ Pandora’s Box was opened by the Prime Minister in his Downing Street statement on the morning of Friday 19 September: “The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.” Ever since, the pundits – media and academic – have been frantically debating the procedural, constitutional and party political implications of this spanner in the post-referendum works, including its unilateral linkage or otherwise to the three party leaders’ ‘Vow’ on greater Scottish devolution published on 16 September.

All constitutional debate is welcome, especially if it engages the public. But a WLQ focus on further UK constitutional reform can be nothing but a disruptive and damaging distraction. Those of us who had always argued that WLQ was just one of those ‘constitutional anomalies’ common in the so-called British Constitution, which should be accepted, rather than something to be ‘solved’, have cause to worry. Like Lords reform, WLQ is both logically and politically insoluble under our present constitutional framework. If it is not to be ‘solved’ by the break-up of the Union, or by some form of genuine federalism (and where have the Lib Dems been on the latter during and after the referendum campaign?), it should not be treated as something which can be solved now by our political elite, especially under the present fevered circumstances.

In written and oral evidence to the McKay Commission, I argued – unsuccessfully – that the Committee, with such a high-powered membership, should not fall into the trap of trying to devise some clever, rational and ‘practical’ solution to WLQ, but should grasp the opportunity of examining the more genuine parliamentary and inter-parliamentary issues arising from devolution. Events seem to have borne out this warning, culminating in Sir William McKay’s extraordinarily endearing admission on BBC radio (as quoted in the print/online media eg The Guardian website, 21 September): “You can’t lower any of our solutions, immediately and without amendment, into the present situation. They will have to be tweaked – a fairly hefty tweak, more a kick than a tweak.

What we have had confirmed in the immediate referendum aftermath is that WLQ is, for many politicians, merely a surrogate for the actual post-devolution ‘fairness’ issue: finance. In so far as the Barnett Formula’s continuance has been guaranteed by the party leaders ‘Vow’, it is the perceived unfairness of the post-devolution allocation of central funding among the various nations and regions of the UK that is the issue worthy of addressing and, if there is thought to be a problem, ‘solving’.

The various TV and radio vox pop sessions, and the pronouncements of the media, south of the border, have demonstrated how WLQ parliamentary procedural ‘unfairness’ and financial ‘unfairness’ have become conflated into a single alleged grievance – with even its own new shorthand term, ‘goodies’.

It is much easier to focus on a grievance if it can be explained in simple terms. Thus there was little public concern about the WLQ or English Question, until it was described in crude phrases like ‘English Votes for English Laws’. The Question as originally posed by Tam Dalyell in the 1970s was not even primarily addressed to that, being more concerned with the inability of the Scottish MPs to vote on devolved matters concerning their constituents, not on their continuing ability to vote on the equivalent English matters.

Thus far UK ‘devolution finance’ (to use a crude shorthand for all the various sub-national transfers etc) has been rather opaque. Who knows what the Barnett Formula actually is? Like its sub-national cousin, local government finance, it is as impenetrable as the proverbial Schleswig-Holstein question. While this allowed all sorts of guestimates to be bandied about as to Scotland’s ‘unfair share’ – remember Ken Livingstone’s during London Mayoral campaigns on how many billions goes from London to Scotland? – there was no real engagement or development of the debate in the public mind.

If methods were devised to make devolution-related financial transfers more transparent and simple to understand, there could be a genuine, meaningful public debate. Remember the seismic shift in local government finance when the opaqueness of domestic rates was replaced by the superficial simplicity and transparency of the poll tax? Instantly, taxpayers could quantify the financial cost of spending policies – and of transfers between areas and councils through RSG etc – in terms of ££s rather than ‘p in the £’ rateable values. Indeed, it was this transparency that helped kill the poll tax itself, and ultimately Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

While this may have short-term risks for the devolved nations, it would ultimately assist the maturing of the devolved arrangements as they develop. One glaring flaw in the original ‘settlement’ was the fact that the devolved bodies had powers to spend but not to raise the revenue required for that spending, barring a minor power not ever used. As that taxing side of the equation is enhanced, making them more responsible and publicly accountable for their spending policies, any Barnett-related unfairness should be reduced and possibly eliminated. With it would go, if done properly, apparent grievances of English taxpayers funding better quality services (free personal care, free prescriptions, no tuition fees etc) for the Scots, which is the genuinely corrosive risk to the current Union constitution.

So, forget WLQ, except as a party political punchbag, and focus on sub-national finance arrangements. The erosion, especially in the 1980s, of the post-war consensus (or acquiescence) in redistribution as a positive principle of public policy means that such debates on financial transfers from one part of the UK to another, and the like, will be difficult, with a greater need for those in favour of redistributive policies to make a strong case against those whose instinct is now that they should get back from the state all that they paid into it, and that their hard-earned money should not be given, without consent, to other areas or people. These are the proper political and constitutional ‘fairness’ arguments we should now be having.

Barry Winetrobe is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, UCL.


Suggested citation: B. Winetrobe, ‘The West Lothian Dead End: Asking the Wrong Question after the Scottish Referendum’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (23rd September 2014) (available at

6 comments on “Barry Winetrobe: The West Lothian Dead End: Asking the Wrong Question after the Scottish Referendum

  1. G Simpson
    September 23, 2014

    It is interesting in political debate that a problem isn’t a problem if it is something you & your political prejudice finds objectionable. There clearly is an issue (perhaps not a biblical size problem) when Scots or Welsh or NI MPs vote to force thru legislation on England (e.g. tuition fees) when they are not subject to such a policy. These issues arise occasionally but they highlight a problem with the UK constitution. As a regionalist the only obvious answer at this stage is a written constitution for a federal UK, with an English Parliament, with all Westminster the UK federal Parliament. The English Parliament needs to be a mirror of the Scot Parl – situated outside London, elected by PR, with a strong committee system. In a way, you are right, it isn’t the WLQ but the Westminster Question: the message from Scotland is that folk are fed up with this over-centralised, archaic, out of touch institution and culture. Only a new Parliament for the English & a fresh start will do. By the way, Westminster can be reduced to 200 MPs & the Lords scrapped to pay for the EP. Unitary local government across England should be finished off in two-tier areas, to save money and pay for Greater London Authority style bodies (in city & county regions) to be created across England.

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  3. Blah blah
    September 30, 2014

    Yes, agreed; ‘Folk’ are certainly ‘fed up’…but none the less fast becoming under-fed! I mean that quite literally! This has been a reality for far too long…and, put simply, it is a disgusting situation; one that should never have been allowed to occur in a so called Western ‘civilised democracy’, let alone the fact that it has occurred in the 21st Century. No less poignant perhaps, is the growing public awareness and grave concern in Scotland, over Anglo-American partnerships, and their ‘covert’ agendas; which, by the way, in case you haven’t noticed, are becoming increasingly more transparent, and therefore even more unpalatable. Then of course there is the continually attempted doublespeak (‘double-squeak’) that we are expected to happily swallow in relation to Europe, NATO, et al…? It may be hard for some to not see through a con…but if ‘folk’ such as those of you in the ‘profession’ procession were to perhaps actually take a real long and hard look at what is going on in the World outside the bubble that most here seem to exist in…you might find that people are becoming more politically aware (as has been noticed), yes, …but perhaps more to the point…people are starting to come to terms with the fact that corporate business (including the big bad media) has its grip on almost every once presumed sacred bastion of a supposedly ‘free’ society; and that, in truth, the World is fast becoming a farce, as a result of this mass widespread awakening. To continue to concentrate here on what has happened, politically, via the referendum, in terms of merely the resulting relations between England and Scotland, and the immediate / long term implications to both, is to indulge in even yet more self-indulgent navel gazing. Such issues, my ‘friends’…are what you might refer to South of the border as merely a storm in your English teacups? I assure you however, the bigger picture has been publicly viewed by the North and we know that if we choose to ignore it, we do so at our own impending peril. I must admit, it is odd to think that the wankers…ooops, my apologies – I meant Bankers, (as well as their bent lawyers) …that sold out the World have seemingly been largely forgotten about…? Hmmm… Indeed.

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This entry was posted on September 23, 2014 by in Scotland and tagged , , , .

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