Ever heard of the West Lothian Question? West Lothian is the Scottish region immediately to the west of Edinburgh. The question is so called because it was first posed by Tam Dalyell, a Labor member of the British Parliament for West Lothian. Mr. Dalyell wondered how long the English would tolerate the situation in which Scottish members of the British Parliament, such as himself, have a (sometimes decisive) say about issues affecting only England, while English parliamentarians have no say about the same matters in Scotland.
In 1999, Tony Blair’s government installed a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Similar parliaments have since been installed in Wales and Northern Ireland. This has led to the anomaly, pointed out by the “West Lothian Question,” that, while English members of the parliament at Westminster have no say about Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish domestic affairs, parliamentarians from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the power to vote on issues that affect just England.
Several proposals have been made to solve this anomaly. One of them is to abolish the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Another is to give England its own parliament, which would imply that the United Kingdom become a federation of four states — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The solution proposed by the Labor government in Westminster, currently led by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (a Scot) and previously by Mr. Blair (also a Scot), is to dissolve England by splitting it up into nine regions, each with its own parliamentary assembly. In a 2004 regional referendum, however, the voters in the Labor-dominated North East of England and overwhelmingly rejected the plan to install an elected North East Assembly. Consequently, the British government shelved its plans for the other assemblies, but means the West Lothian dilemma has still not been solved.
The whole issue has led to a rise of English nationalism. Though many English do not demand an English parliament, since they consider the British Parliament at Westminster to be their English parliament, the attempt to split up England has made them aware that Britain is being threatened and that the very survival of England is in jeopardy.
The Scottish National Party, the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, favors downright independence from Britain and wants Scotland to become a member of the European Union. Many Scottish Nationalists regard the EU as an enemy of the UK, hence their ally. The English, however, see the EU as a threat to the sovereignty of their, British, parliament at Westminster.
British politics are currently dominated by the question whether there should be a referendum about the new EU treaty, which attempts to ram through the European Constitution previously rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands. Polls indicate that a majority of the English want a referendum and are not prepared, like the French and the Dutch, to be cajoled into accepting the new treaty that is merely a rephrasing of the previously rejected constitution.
Though Labor’s 2005 election manifesto promised a referendum on the issue, Mr. Brown intends to avoid one. For the English, however, the very essence of democracy is at stake. Some go so far as to say that if the EU forces its new treaty on Britain, the latter should secede from the EU. This is a position which Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Daily Telegraph would immediately adopt, if only he was sure that it would not lead to the collapse of the UK, pitting England against Scotland. “It is a very big risk, and perhaps the biggest single reason for sticking it out in the EU,” Mr. Evans-Pritchard writes.
In fact, this is the West Lothian Question writ large. If Scotland does not want to leave the EU while England does, some English, in order to save the UK, would subjugate Westminster to the EU.
Others, however, are prepared to give up the UK in order to save democracy in England. “I have never doubted that the existence of the United Kingdom was a benefit to England,” Lord William Rees-Mogg wrote in last week’s London Times. He adds, however, that the rise of English nationalism does not frighten him. “A healthy nationalism is the shield of liberty,” he writes, and he warns: “I do not think that Gordon Brown is English, or that he understands that English nationalism is just as attached to independence as Scottish.”
Paul Belien is editor of the Brussels Journal and an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute.