Nick responds to the Democracy Taskforce's proposals on the West Lothian Question

July 2008

I would like to thank Ken Clarke and the other members of the Democracy Task Force for coming up with a thoughtful and persuasive answer to the West Lothian Question, one which seeks to ensure that legislation affecting England alone should have the consent of England's representatives.

David Cameron has made clear that the next Conservative Government will address the West Lothian Question.  When the Shadow Cabinet comes to consider the precise formulation of the answer in our Manifesto, there are a number of key principles which we should apply.

First, our starting point will be to maintain the Union.  We will do nothing to put the Union at risk, and everything in our power to strengthen it.  As David Cameron said in Edinburgh last year, if it should ever come to a choice between constitutional perfection and the preservation of our nation, this Party will choose our United Kingdom.

But what is putting the Union most at risk is Labour's unbalanced devolution settlement.  People fairly ask why Scottish MPs should continue to vote on issues that affect only England and Wales but have been devolved in Scotland.  But we should not allow the agenda to be stolen by those who want to cultivate grievances in order to tear the Union apart or foster a narrow nationalism.

Second, a common thread running through our reforms is the principle of accountability.  The people's elected representatives should be accountable to their constituents for the decisions they take.

But as a result of devolution, Many MPs are in the paradoxical position of legislating for those to whom they are not accountable, while being unable to legislate for those to whom they are accountable.  The West Lothian Question highlights the exercise of power without accountability.

Just as most of Scotland's laws are now passed with the consent of the Scottish people, expressed through their elected representatives, so it is right to require English consent for laws affecting only England - or English and Welsh consent for laws affecting only England and Wales.

The third principle is fairness.  But fairness means ensuring that the constituent parts of the Union have arrangements appropriate to their needs.

It does not mean that every part of the Union has the same arrangements.  The United Kingdom has never been a symmetrical union.

England, with 84 per cent of the population, is distinct.

Scotland, with its own legal and educational systems, is distinct.

Wales is distinct: not least because of the survival - indeed the revival - of the Welsh language, about which my Party can be enormously proud.

And of course Northern Ireland has very particular circumstances and needs.

Even before devolution, government decisions affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could be taken in very different ways.  What matters when we consider the right way to make legislation for England alone - or for England and Wales - is not strict symmetry with Scotland, but good governance and fairness.

That is one reason why we reject an English Parliament, which, while superficially addressing the problem of imbalance, would create an unnecessary and expensive additional layer of politicians, and a lop-sided federalism in which the power of an English Parliament would put both Westminster and the Union at risk.

By contrast, the Democracy Task Force's proposals would allow governments to govern - with consent and, where necessary, compromise.  They address the need to strengthen the Union, enhance accountability and introduce greater fairness.

It was a sense of unfairness and lack of accountability that led to the process of devolution in the first place.  The tragedy is that Labour have created new grievances in England, while their treatment of Scotland and Wales has fuelled nationalism in those countries.

And while not wanting to intrude on this week's private grief, I cannot help but note the irony that devolution has failed to provide Labour with the safe political havens it cynically expected.

I would like to repeat my thanks to Ken and his team for their proposals.  It must be right to act now to address a Question which, if left unanswered, will allow English resentment to ferment.

This Thursday will be the anniversary of Gordon Brown's first statement to Parliament, on constitutional renewal, in which he refused to answer the West Lothian Question.

It is striking that on this major constitutional issue, one on which the future of the United Kingdom rests, it is the Conservatives who are grasping the thistle of reform and setting the agenda.


Document type

Speeches

Published

1 July 2008

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