2010: better watch out, there may be a constitutional crisis about
Over the past 12 months or so, amid all of the economic doom and gloom, I have tried to be relatively cheery and upbeat when it comes to sticking my head above the blogosphere parapet. However, on this occasion, I appear to have joined the ranks of the glass-half-empty brigade.
To make matters worse, I've a more-than-sneaking suspicion that a number of you may not have heard of the cause of my despond. So, what's got me down in the dumps? A political conundrum that's remained lurking in the darkest recesses of our political system since 1977: the West Lothian Question. It takes its name from the then political constituency of the MP who first raised it - Labour stalwart, Tam Dalyell - and it relates to the effect of devolution on those bits of the UK without devolved parliaments.
It resonates most strongly when we consider the political relationship between England and Scotland. Given my born-in-England-raised-in-Scotland-work-in-England-but-think-I'm-Scottish-really background, this is something in which I take a keen interest and (I hope) explains why I'm getting depressed about this when much of the rest of the population appears to be more concerned about the love lives of (current and former) members of the Chelsea football team.
It's best explained by an example, so here goes. Let's assume that Labour win the forthcoming election with a majority of 10 seats (and an outright Conservative victory at the polls would require the biggest swing in post-war electoral history, so this assumption must be within the range of possible outcomes). A narrow victory, but enough to govern.
However, 15 of those seats are held by Labour MPs for Scottish constituencies including, the recently disclosed 'forces of hell' notwithstanding, the current Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Those Scottish Westminster MPs have no influence over their constituents' lives in all of the areas where power has been devolved to Holyrood - health and education being two of the most politically sensitive and important.
So: what happens when the government wants to pass legislation involving health and education for the rest of the UK? With the Scottish MPs removed from the equation, the government would not have a majority.
And this is the heart of the problem posed by the West Lothian Question. Why should MPs who don't have any say over health and education so far as their own constituents are concerned vote on the same issues when they effect the lives of other UK citizens (a large number of whom will not have voted for the government of the day)? Irrespective of your views on the merits or otherwise of devolved government, I hope you agree that there is an element of unfairness in this.
To make matters worse, there is little by way of definitive answer to the conundrum, although I assume that this is partly due to the fact that the situation has never arisen in practice. From the perspective of a constitutional lawyer, the answer might lie with the fact that Westminster has retained a right to veto any legislation passed in Holyrood, although I'm not sure that's an adequate answer. A right to veto legislation isn't the same as a right to pass it, and I'm pretty confident that the exercise of the right of veto by Westminster would create an entirely different political dilemma north of Hadrian's Wall if it was ever exercised.
The perfect answer to the question is for there to be equal devolution throughout the UK. But this doesn't reflect current political reality: the Welsh Parliament doesn't have any significant powers, the assembly at Stormont is a separate political conundrum all of its own and the move towards greater English devolution died a very quick death following the unsuccessful referendum campaign for an assembly in the North East back in 2004.
All of that having been said, perhaps the demand for equal devolution throughout the rest of the UK will change if Welsh, Northern Irish and (particularly) English voters suddenly feel disenfranchised once the dust has settled in May.
As for me, I'm hoping that an upturn in recent fortunes for both Dundee United and the Scottish rugby team over the weekend will put me in better cheer, but, if I'm honest, I'm not that optimistic.