THE First Minister has said it many times this week and he said it again yesterday in his usual bullish terms: the question of a referendum on independence is one for Scots and Scots alone.
However, there is another question – one first posed 25 years ago – that could yet have a profound effect on the independence argument and in particular whether the so-called devo-max option ends up on the ballot paper.
The West Lothian question, in essence, asks the following: why should Scottish MPs in the Commons have the right to vote on English matters when English MPs have no such right on Scottish matters? There is no doubt this is a constitutional anomaly and the polling by the think tank IPPR and Edinburgh and Cardiff universities would appear to show it is one that is increasingly vexing English voters, with 79% saying they want Scottish MPs barred from votes on English-only laws.
The fact the Coalition Government has set up a commission to look into this matter is welcome but could be seen in two ways – either as a genuine attempt to fix a constitutional problem or as a way for David Cameron to assuage the anger of English Tories infuriated by it. Whichever is true, the danger for Mr Cameron is that if the commission rushes to remove voting powers from Scottish MPs, it may simply accelerate the speed of travel towards devo-max or even independence. In other words, Mr Cameron could end up with exactly the opposite of what he says he wants.
The other danger in removing most of Scottish MPs' voting rights in the Commons and leaving them with a say on only a narrow range of subjects, such as defence and foreign policy, is the risk that Scots, even those who support the Union, would start to ask: what is the point in Scottish MPs in London if they are forcibly silenced on a range of subjects? And where does it end? Should Scottish MPs also be barred from becoming Prime Minister? Astonishingly, that is what Michael Portillo proposed last week. If Scotland is to send MPs to the Westminster Parliament, they must be active partners with a meaningful say.
None of this is to deny the existence of the anomaly or the fact the West Lothian Question will only get louder if and when more powers are ceded to Edinburgh. This newspaper has called in the past for Scottish MPs to ask themselves a question of conscience on every English-only matter – is it right that I vote on this? – although it must also be recognised that, when government majorities are smaller and whips are cracking down on backbenchers, a self-denying ordnance will be almost impossible.
A solution must be found, but the commission should not be precipitate in suggesting a radical one that could widen the gap between England and Scotland. Some constitutional purists might argue that the only real solution would be a parliament for England, but short of that, some structural change to allow certain English decisions to be taken by English MPs might be the way forward.
All of these ideas should be on the table, hopefully in an atmosphere of co-operation rather than confrontation. In this respect, the news that Mr Cameron is in the process of arranging a meeting with Alex Salmond is welcome, although the Prime Minister does appear once again to have been wrong-footed given that it was made clear by Downing Street at the end of last week that Mr Salmond should meet the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and not the Prime Minister or his deputy.
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