Sunday, 28 October 2007

The West Lothian question rears its head

New proposals on the so-called 'West Lothian Question' have been put to the Conservatives by Sir Malcolm Rifkind: West Lothian . Is his East Lothian response to the original West Lothian question posed by Tam Dalyell a piece of political mischief making or a contribution to an issue on which the recent Green Paper on governance is strangely silent?

With Scotland having its own SNP government, there is something anomalous about Scottish MPs being allowed to vote on, for example, health and education issues that affect only England. Of course, in part this is a consequence of having devolution in three parts of the UK, but no general federal settlement (which is not possible given that even the north-east, which has a stronger regional identity than most, did not want an elected regional government - quite rightly in my view).

Of course, even with the reduced number of Scottish MPs following devolution, Labour can depend on Scottish seats for a majority. And the issue is particularly awkward for a Scottish prime minister of the UK who is keen on emphasising 'Britishness'.

The issue acquires new salience with the Scottish 'Government' seeking to take measures such as free prescriptions for all. Such bounty is only possible because of the 'Barnett Formula' which allocates funds between the three parts of the UK. It was devised by Joel Barnett, then Chief Secretary of the Treasury, in 1978 although he subsequently said that he did not think it would last a year or even twenty minutes.

It ensures that Scotland gets more money per capita than England. Its defenders insist that Scotland needs more money because of its remote populations in the Highlands and Islands, plus the additional health care costs that arise from many Scots following unhealthy lifestyles in terms of smoking and alcohol consumption. Scottish Nationalists also claim that Scotland has been robbed of its oil revenues by the English.

As an Englishman of Scottish (and Cornish) descent, I wouldn't want to take sides. But, party politics aside, there has to be some resolution of the implications for England of devolution to Scotland, which is likely to be more extensive over time.

3 comments:

Jim Symcox said...

Hmm...

Interesting how does that tie in with the First Ministers thought that Scotland is actually extrememly wealthy?

Jim

Justin Greaves said...

Indeed - Alex Salmond told the Scottish National Party Conference yesterday that if Scotland were given direct control of North Sea oil and gas it could be the third-wealthiest country in Europe and the sixth-richest in the world. Admittedly, such claims are based on current high oil prices.

Jim Symcox said...

Yes I heard that too.

Does that mean that they'll support the English with their health, education and old age financial needs? Or is independence required so they don't have to?