Ever since Ireland was granted a degree of self determination in Gladstone's time, constitutional academics have been considering how such arrangements should be legislated for.This consideration grew in public discourse when devolution was being considered in the late 1970s. The issue was best encapsulated in a question put in the House of Commons by Tam Dalyell, MP for West Lothian. He wanted to know;
"How long will English constituencies and English hon. members tolerate hon. members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important decisive effect on English politics, while they have no say on the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?" One would have expected this to be known as 'The English Question'. But in his response to Tam Dalyell, the great Enoch Powell suggested it should be known as 'The West Lothian Question'. And that is indeed what it is known as.
It was rather a good question, which over the years I've though about quite a bit - and my view has always been that its one of those questions which should not be answered. There is no doubt that the current position is a constitutional anomaly. But my opinion is that all the possible answers to the West Lothian Question create new constitutional anomalies - like flattening a bump in a water bed. The recently published McKay Commission report has just offered another one - equally flawed. Though if I put my partisan hat on I can see some real attractions to this one.
Lets consider some of the various answers. First up an 'English Parliament'. Now do we really need to create another 'parliament'? Is this what the people of Britain want? I have heard it suggested that current MPs sitting for English seats could meet as an 'English Parliament' each Friday at the House of Commons. Well, I would not want these English MPs deciding on health and transport policies in Shropshire without my being there, or air transport policy just because the actual airports are in England. Increasingly specialist services are going to be in England. Lots of mid Wales services are in Shropshire. Some form of an English Parliament is supported by those who want a 'federal' UK. Personally I do not thing a 'federal system is sustainable when one of the 'federal partners' is around 85% of the whole. Think Cyprus and the Eurozone!! Many sensible people like this idea. I don't.
So what about 'English votes for English laws'. Personally I think this is rather better, but would be horrendously complex and difficult to operate. Every bill would have aspects which affected England only. House of Commons would be like a non-stop Hokey Kokey. But this would be good for job creation - the million civil servants needed to make it work. This is not for me either - unless we unwisely decide 'Something must be done'.
So what about cutting back on the number of MPs representing the devolved nations. A few like this idea. It was proposed by Michael Howard when he led the Conservatives. The idea was (at the time) that if law making powers were not granted to Cardiff Bay the reduction would be to 33 MPs rather than 40 (pro rata the comparative populations), and if law making powers were granted (as they were by the 2006 Act) the number would be 26 MPs. Not sure there would be many takers for this. Just imaging all those hour long Chris Bryant speeches. God save us.
Of course we could just make the four nations 'independent' or scrap devolution altogether. While there would be a quite a few takers for both of these options, they are just not going to happen - anytime soon anyway. So we must consider what the McKay Commission is suggesting. I have not read the report yet (depending on media coverage only) so cannot make too firm a conclusion. But I cannot see the idea of English MPs having a veto on UK legislation (which affects only England) if there is no majority of 'English' MPs in support. I can see some attractions for the Tories here because of our relative strength in England. But we would still be the almost impossible position of identifying which bills (and clauses of bills) would qualify..... This game of possibilities could go on for ever!