Scottish Devolution and the West Lothian Question Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Scottish Devolution and the West Lothian Question

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A view of the Scottish Parliament building, Holyrood, Edinburgh.

In 1707, the parliaments of Scotland and England passed an Act of Union. This created a new state of the United Kingdom and a new parliament of Great Britain. At this point the parliaments of England and Scotland were formally dissolved.

'When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o' our ain, we could aye peeble them wi' stanes when they werena gude bairns - But naebody's nails can reach the length o' Lunnon'.
- Mrs Howden in Heart of Midlothian by Walter Scott (1771 - 1832)

There had been a Union of Crowns since 1603, when King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England.

In 1979, a referendum for Scottish devolution was put to the people of Scotland. As less than 40% of the electorate voted, the result of the referendum (51% for 'yes') was rejected by the government.

The Labour Party won a General Election in 1997 after 18 years of Conservative rule. Before this Labour victory the Conservatives enjoyed a parliamentary majority in Britain, but did not hold a majority of Scottish constituencies, and some of their policies were very unpopular in Scotland. This contributed to the atmosphere preceding the 1997 referendum in Scotland for Scottish devolution.

In this vote, the 74% majority of Scots voted in favour of a Scottish parliament. 64% voted in favour of that parliament having tax-varying powers. The overall turnout was 60%. The Scotland Act was passed in 1998 by the UK parliament at Westminster. This marked a significant change to the British Parliamentary System, and has created the problem of the West Lothian Question.

The West Lothian Question

The West Lothian Question was first mooted in the 1970s by the MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell. He pointed out that in post-devolution Scotland, English-constituency MPs will not be able to vote on matters devolved to Scotland, but Scottish-constituency MPs will be able to vote on these matters for England.

As a result, a Scottish-constituency MP who is also the leader of a British political party will have to determine policies on issues devolved to Scotland. Similarly, a Scottish-constituency MP may be Secretary of State for an issue devolved to the Scottish parliament.

Some Devolved and Reserved Issues

In short, issues devolved to the Scottish parliament are those of a local nature. The issues important to all of Britain are reserved to the British parliament.

Devolved to the Scottish Parliament:

  • Health
  • Education and Training
  • Local Government
  • Housing
  • Planning
  • Social Work
  • Tourism
  • Police and Fire Services
  • Prosecution System and the Courts
  • Prisons
  • Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing
  • Gaelic
  • Sport and the Arts
  • Environment
  • Some areas of Transport

Reserved for the British Parliament:

  • Immigration
  • Foreign Policy
  • Defence
  • National Security
  • Social Security
  • Energy
  • Common Markets
  • Constitutional Matters
  • Trade and Industry
  • Some areas of Transport

Sewell Motions

Sewell motions can be passed by the Scottish parliament to allow a devolved issue to be determined at Westminster. They are named after Lord Sewell who introduced the policy while the Scotland Act was being passed in the House of Lords.

Current Political Context

From the table below, it can be seen that Scotland's MPs are far outnumbered by those from England.

Total Number of MPs per nation:
Northern Ireland18

In addition, the support for political parties differs by nation. Most notably, in the 2005 General Election the Conservatives came second in England overall, but fourth in Scotland. As all Members of Parliament have the same voting rights, Labour MPs from Scotland can be pressurised by their party into boosting pro-government votes for controversial legislation which does not affect their own constituents. The Conservatives are unable to counterbalance this as they have one MP from Scotland. As Labour only holds a small parliamentary majority, this issue is of particular pertinence.

Moreover, some government departments are concerned simultaneously with all of the UK in some areas and parts of it in others. For example: at the Home Office, immigration policy and drug laws are determined for all Britain. Yet the police, prisons and prosecution services are devolved in Scotland.

Proposed Solutions

Proposed solutions to the West Lothian Question include:

Do Nothing

Do nothing, accept the West Lothian Question as a quirk of the parliamentary system, and hope much of the recent controversy goes away.

This creates the problems of:

  • Failing to address the West Lothian Question, thus creating increasing resentment in England.
  • This could create an atmosphere where it is impossible for a British political party to have a non-English constituency leader.

Prevent Scottish constituency MPs voting on English matters

Also known as the so called 'in-and-out' or 'English votes for English matters' solution. This solution would give MPs different voting powers, depending on whether they represented a constituency in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland or Wales.

This solution is favoured by the Conservatives and is an oft-cited solution, but is one of the more problematic. Problems with this solution include:

  • Deciding which issues and acts are only relevant to England - This is far from the clear-cut issue it may initially appear. For example, the 2004 Higher Education Bill contained clauses relating to Scotland. Even without these clauses, the effects of this legislation are being felt in Scotland. Add Sewell motions to the mix, and things can get complicated
  • Political convenience - The Conservatives have one Scottish Constituency MP, Labour have 41. It's no suprise which option each favour.
  • Constitutional concerns - There are a myriad of constitutional problems associated with this solution. For example, the party holding a majority in England may be different from the political party holding a majority for the UK. In such a situation, how could a government fulfil its election promises? How could there ever be a non-English constituency MP as Prime Minister? How can there be different 'classes' of MP in the one Parliament?
  • Lack of parsimony - With such a solution, the MPs representing constituencies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will all have different voting rights.
  • Historical precedent - Such a solution was previously rejected for being unworkable, with regard to Irish MPs.

English Regional Devolution

  • Creating English regional assemblies with devolved powers.


  • Was voted against in a referendum, so has little popular support.

Devolution to England

  • Creating an English Parliament with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament, and a separate British Parliament to deal with reserved matters.

Problems associated with this solution include:

  • Fundamentally changing the politics of the UK with a federal solution.
  • There is little evidence of support for this solution in England.

Revoke devolution to Scotland

  • Returning to the parliamentary system which existed before devolution to Scotland and Wales.

Problems include:

  • Denying a democratic vote.
  • Could be deeply controversial in Scotland.

Scottish Independence

  • Creating an independent state of Scotland.

This solution would involve:

  • Breaking up the union.



The Foundation Hospitals Act was passed with the help of the votes of Scottish-constituency Labour MPs, as well as the SNP. The sole Scottish constituency Conservative MP abstained.

The Higher Education Bill (which introduced university top-up fees) was implemented with the help of votes from Scottish constituency MPs.


Dawn raids on asylum seekers and their children created protests, with opppenents objecting to a perceived excessive use of force. The first minister was criticised for refusing to speak on the matter, citing the fact that immigration is reserved.


The Scottish parliament was set up in 1997 to allow issues relating only to Scotland to be determined locally, without the permission of the British parliament. Issues of national importance are reserved to the British parliament at Westminster. The Scottish devolution settlement has created the problem of the West Lothian Question, whereby MPs from a Scottish constituency can vote on issues not affecting their own constituents. This problem is currently unresolved, and potential solutions would create new problems.

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