Monday, December 2, 2013

Answering the West Lothian Question

Wikipedia has a great page on this. In short, in the UK, they have Devolution. To simplify greatly, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have "Provincial" parliaments, while England does not. This means that it's up to the national parliament to make those decisions, but, only for England.

The MP for West Lothian, in Scotland, then asked:
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?
 Wikipedia goes on detail that "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 town of Blackburn, Lancashire, but not Blackburn, West Lothian, in his own constituency."

So what is the answer then, to this question? how do we solve this?

To put this in a Canadian context, one can imagine that Ontario is not a province, but the other 9 provinces are.

Some of the proposed solutions are as follows:

1 - Only allow English MPs to vote on laws relating to England. In our Canada example, this would mean that while no Ontario legislature exists, Ontario's MPs would, in effect, act as one.

2 - Create an English parliament. Part of the problem with this is that England is 5/6ths of the UK in terms of population, so such a "provincial level" assembly would be ridiculously powerful compared to any comparative body in Scotland. An alternative to this is to split up England into smaller chunks and make those "provinces", in our analogy.

3 - Break up the country. This would solve the problem alright, but many see this as an extreme solution.

4 - Abolish the lower assemblies. Another seemingly radical solution that in our Canadian example would be akin to abolishing the provinces.

5 - Make the Scottish seats have more people-per-MP. Nobody really seems to be very keen on this idea.

Those debating the question tend to approach it with this in mind. The existence of the West Lothian question means something has gone wrong and needs fixing. I propose a solution that's not often considered and provide the following example of why it makes sense depending on the context.

To help understand, lets say that all the Provinces decide to become their own country.

Now you have the country of British Columbia. 85 seats in Parliament. Or rather, there were 85. BC decided to take the Yukon along. The Yukon's current population would entitle it to one seat in the BC legislature, so, BC now has 86 seats. BC decides, however, to keep the Yukon as a Territory.

Would anyone really complain? I argue no. When only 1/86th of your legislature is affected, any such "Yukon Question" would be minor at best.

So what if we had different numbers? Lets presume that Ontario and Quebec decide to turn back the clock 200 years and become a dual-province. They also go back to the old system of equal number of MP's for each half. If Ontario did not have a provincial assembly, but Quebec did, there'd likely be widespread problems. Now you have 1/2, or half, of your legislature affected by the West Lothian Question.

So what of the UK? Currently Scotland has 59 MPs and Northern Ireland has 18. This is a total of 77 for the two of them. Wales has 40, for a grand total of 117. England thus has 529 seats. This means that 18%, or, about 1/6th of MPs are affected. This, however, only applies when Wales is not included. There are many matters where Wales is included in with England (Law for example) When this happens our number drops to 12%, or 1/8th.

Using Ontario to compare, this would mean that the 107 MPPs would also be sitting with 24 others, roughly the number of MPs from the 3 Maritime provinces. This is where can start to see my answer.

If such a situation did exist, I find it hard to believe there would be any real threat posed by these Maritime MPs to the remainder of Ontario. Even if they happened to favour one party over another, the end result is that on the whole, there are not enough of them to greatly unbalance the system.

The proposed but unpassed 2013 UK boundary review would have made this argument even more powerful by having 502 of a total 600 MPs come from England.

My answer is then as follows:

If the area or areas in Question which are subject to the West Lothian question contain such a large proportion of population and representatives to cause this to become troublesome, than it is not simply the question of who votes on what in Parliament, but rather, the whole system itself that is not fit for purpose. As such there is no reason to give the members from the larger portion of the nation more rights as this only shifts the problem; the answer thus is to say the proportion is small enough it does not matter, or, that the entire system needs to be redesigned from the ground up. Of those two, I argue, at the current time, the UK is in the former, and 1/6th of MPs is simply not great enough fraction to cause such a massive problem.

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