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The West Lothian Question was first posed on 14 November 1977 by Tam Dalyell, Labour Member of Parliament (MP) for the Scottish constituency of West Lothian, during a British House of Commons debate over Scottish and Welsh devolution (see Scotland Act 1978 and Wales Act 1978):

For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

He illustrated his point by pointing out the absurdity of a Member of Parliament for West Lothian being able to vote on matters affecting the English region of Blackburn, Lancashire but not Blackburn, West Lothian in his own constituency.

The name "West Lothian Question" was coined by the Ulster Unionist (formerly Conservative) MP Enoch Powell in his response to Dalyell's speech: "We have finally grasped what the Honourable Member for West Lothian is getting at. Let us call it the West Lothian question."


Current situation


Executive power hierarchy

The Scottish Parliament was formed by statute—the Scotland Act 1998—and is thus a creation of Westminster. The enactment of the Scotland Act 1998 conferred no sovereign status on the Scottish Parliament, and has not changed the status of the Westminster Parliament as the supreme legislature of Scotland, with Westminster retaining the ability to override, or veto, any decisions taken by the Scottish Parliament. The Westminster Parliament remains the sovereign body; power is devolved rather than transferred to the Scottish Parliament.

As a consequence, the ability of all Westminster MPs to vote on Scottish legislation has not been legally diminished by devolution, as made clear by Section 28(7) of the Scotland Act 1998, which states that the legislative powers of the Scottish Parliament do ...not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Scotland.[1]

During devolution, a convention was created to manage the power of Westminster to legislate on matters within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. This is known as the Sewel Convention, and the related Scottish parliamentary motions are now known as Legislative Consent Motions (previously Sewel Motions).[2] These motions (of which there are around a dozen per year) allow all English, Welsh, Northern Irish, and Scottish MPs to vote on issues, which among other things, are within the Scottish Parliament's legislative competence. The Sewel Convention states that the Westminster Parliament will not normally legislate on devolved matters in Scotland without first obtaining the consent of the Scottish Parliament. However, given that the Sewel Convention is a legally unenforcable procedural device,[3] and the UK Parliament has legislative supremacy; were the Scottish Parliament to deny consent, Westminster would be able to ignore this and pass the law anyway—although this has never happened in practice.

Reserved matters

Legislation relating to reserved issues such as defence, national security, foreign affairs and monetary and economic issues are voted on by all the MPs at Westminster to ensure consistency across the whole of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament is not able to pass laws on these issues itself, as they were not devolved. The West Lothian Question is not related to this situation, as all parts of the Union have a say roughly proportional to their population and all are equally affected.

Parliament of Northern Ireland

A situation akin to that presented by the West Lothian Question did exist between 1921 and 1972, when there was a Parliament of Northern Ireland that legislated for Northern Ireland, whilst Northern Ireland continued to send MPs to Westminster, who could vote on matters affecting Great Britain only.

However, during this period Northern Ireland had disproportionately fewer MPs than would be expected from the relative populations, with the numbers cut from the twenty-nine elected at the 1918 general election to thirteen from the 1922 general election, and later to twelve with the abolition of University constituencies in 1950.


The West Lothian Question causes controversy in British politics. Polls suggest that Scottish voters are agreed that the situation is unfair.[4]

For example; English students are required to pay "top-up" tuition fees, while Scottish students are not. The legislation imposing top-up fees on English students passed by a small majority of 316 to 311. At the time opposition education secretary Tim Yeo argued that this low majority indicated that the passing of the law had hinged on Scottish MPs voting to introduce tuition fees that the Scottish would not have to pay.[5]

Proposed answers

'English votes on English laws'

It has been suggested that Scottish MPs should be barred from voting on matters that do not affect Scotland.[6] In July 1999, the then-Conservative leader William Hague said that "English MPs should have exclusive say over English laws... People will become increasingly resentful that decisions are being made in England by people from other parts of the UK on matters that English people did not have a say on elsewhere... I think it is a dangerous thing to allow resentment to build up in a country. We have got to make the rules fair now." [7 ]

As a slight variation, Sir Malcolm Rifkind proposed that an English Grand Committee, along the lines of the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees (made up of all the MPs from relevant nation) be formed to debate on the effects of legislation on England.[8]

However a major problem with this is that Wales does not have full law making powers, meaning that many "English" laws will still affect the way that Wales is governed.

It would furthermore create a curious constitutional circumstance in that the current Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, who both represent Scottish constituencies, would be excluded from voting on English law.

English devolution

English parliament

The creation of a devolved English parliament, with full legislative powers, akin to the Scottish Parliament is seen by some as a solution to this problem[9], with full legislative powers also being conferred on the existing Welsh Assembly. The Westminster (United Kingdom) Parliament would continue to meet and legislate on matters of UK-wide competence such as Defence, Foreign Affairs and economic matters with the parliaments of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland legislating locally.

However opponents of this proposal argue that it would simply add another layer of government and an 'expensive talking shop'. Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the former Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, has stated that he believes that an English Parliament would 'dwarf all other institutions.'[10]

Regional assemblies

The Labour government has attempted to address the West Lothian Question by introducing English regional assemblies. This they hoped would address the issue without creating a body that would be dominated by the Conservative party.

They had planned to establish English regional assemblies with no legislative powers. Originally it was planned that these would be directly elected. The London Assembly was the first of these, established following a referendum in 1998, in which public and media attention was focused principally on the post of Mayor of London.[11] Ken Livingstone was the first directly elected Mayor of London. He started his victory speech with "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago...", making it clear he saw the London Assembly as recreation of a similar London wide authority to that of the Greater London Council, which he had led before it was abolished in the 1980s.[12]

Further progress was thwarted when a referendum in the North East rejected the proposal for an elected assembly in November 2004[13] leading to the shelving of similar proposals for other English regions. Nevertheless, unelected regional development authorities (quangos) remain in place.

Dissolution of the Union

Another solution might be the dissolution of the United Kingdom leading to some or all of the constituent countriesEngland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales—becoming independent sovereign states.

The principal party that campaigns for a dissolution of the Union is the Scottish National Party (SNP), which won a plurality of seats in the 2007 Scottish Parliament general election. Since the election, the SNP has formed a minority administration in the Scottish Parliament and has drafted a bill for an independence referendum. It is unlikely that this bill will be passed by the Scottish Parliament, as only 50 MSPs (47 SNP, 2 Greens and 1 independent) out of 129 favour independence, although the Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats Parties have both expressed support for a multi-choice referendum to give the Scottish Parliament more powers.

Since decisions made at Holyrood concerning major constitutional issues are not binding on Westminster, it is also currently unclear if an independence bill passed in the Scottish Parliament would be legally valid. While it might attempt to establish de facto independence, de jure independence would be far harder to achieve.

Some politicians and commentators have speculated that 'English only' votes at Westminster would lead to a dissolution of the Union.

Abolishing the devolved bodies

The abolition of the devolved Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly would also fundamentally address the anomaly created by their establishment.

It would be highly controversial in Scotland, where the referendum passed by a large margin, and was passed in all 32 council areas of the country. Recent opinion polls have shown that support for abolishing the Scottish Parliament is running at below 10%, which is far lower than the figure that voted No in 1997. In Wales, where there was a tight margin in the referendum, in 1997, support since then has grown for the Welsh Assembly, and in favour of Wales having an Assembly. [14]

Another consideration would be the potential implications that abolishing the Northern Ireland Assembly would have for the nascent peaceful settlement to the Troubles.

All the main political parties have stated that devolution cannot be reversed without the consent of the electorate in the country concerned.

Reducing the number of Scottish MPs

There is also the option of cutting the number of Scottish MPs even further, as happened to Northern Irish representation during the existence of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, when the number of MPs from the province at Westminster was below the standard ratio of electorate to MPs for the rest of the UK. It is argued that this would trade a reduced voice for Scotland in exchange for Scottish MPs being able to vote on English matters, and therefore may form an acceptable solution. However, while such a solution would have attraction to England, it is difficult to see how accepting reduced voting strength on major issues that affect Scotland in exchange for a say in matters that do not apply to Scotland could be an attractive trade from a Scottish perspective.

Stop asking the question

In 1998, Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg said that the best answer to the question was to stop asking it.[15]

Further reading

See also


  1. ^ Scotland Act, section 28(7)
  2. ^ Sewel Motions, Scottish Government website
  3. ^ The Sewel ConventionPDF (90.1 KB), House of Commons Standard Note
  4. ^ Scots don't want MPs voting on English affairs - Telegraph
  5. ^ BBC NEWS | Politics | Blair wins key top-up fees vote
  6. ^ If it's English vote for English law, the UK's end is nigh, The Guardian, June 12, 2006
  7. ^ "English votes on English laws", BBC News Online, July 15, 1999
  8. ^ "Tories Ponder English Only Voting", BBC News Online, October 28, 2007
  9. ^ Campaign for an English Parliament,
  10. ^ A possible answer to this might be an English Parliament consisting of all the 529 English MPs, a sort of 'English Grand Committee' - For the Majority Party in Parliament might not have the majority of English constituencies.No English parliament — Falconer, BBC News Online, 10 March 2006
  11. ^ 'Overwhelming vote for Mayor', BBC News Online, 8 May 1998
  12. ^ Paul Waugh and Andrew Grice. Ken reclaims the capital, The Independent 6 May 2000
  13. ^ North East votes 'no' to assembly, BBC News Online, 5 November 2004
  14. ^ "Majority back law-making assembly", BBC News Online, February 2009],
  15. ^ Bagehot, "The Economist", page 36, 8 July 2006

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary


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Originally raised by Tam Dalyell, M.P. for West Lothian.


West Lothian question

  1. (British, law) The anomaly whereby Scottish MPs can vote on issues affecting England, but English MPs cannot vote on Scottish issues.


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