On November 14, 1977, Tam Dalyell, the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Scottish constituency of West Lothian, rose to address the House of Commons. The question before the House was termed “devolution of powers”: should Scotland and Wales have parliaments of their own to legislate on local affairs? Dalyell would have none of it. What sense would it make, he asked, if he, a Scot elected to Parliament, could vote on proposals that affected Blackburn, Lancashire, in England, but not his home constituency of Blackburn, West Lothian?
The question arose because of the curious configuration of the United Kingdom. After England incorporated first Wales, then Scotland, then Ireland (later whittled down to the six counties known as Northern Ireland), these regions gained the right to send representatives to the English Parliament in London. Yet these Celtic nations preserved their historical distinction from the “Angleland” that had been established by the Germanic Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century AD, leaving the British Isles with four “countries” united in one kingdom. With England dominating the union politically and culturally, it was predictable enough that someday the other three countries would seek some measure of self-rule. Hence the conundrum that became known as the “West Lothian question”, a question that remained unanswered when the devolution measure failed to gather sufficient support in a 1979 referendum.
The Scots would live to rue that day. Just two months later, the UK held a general election, and Conservative Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister despite losing by ten points in Scotland. Thatcher set about dismantling the welfare state that many Scots prized, and the bleakness of nearly two decades of Conservative rule changed many minds about self-rule. Consequently, when Labour returned to office in 1997, the Scots jumped at Prime Minister Tony Blair’s offer to finally create a Scottish Parliament with powers over health, education, and welfare. And the separatist Scottish National Party won a majority in that Parliament in 2011, promising another referendum, this one on outright independence from the United Kingdom.
When the referendum came on September 18, 2014, Scotland voted to remain in the UK by the narrow but comfortable margin of 55%-45%. But in the final days of pre-referendum campaigning, the growing prospect that the Scots might actually vote to secede led Prime Minister David Cameron to promise devolved power over taxes, spending, and welfare to the Scottish Parliament. That offer leaves him in a sticky situation. Wales and Northern Ireland, which already have assemblies of their own, will want the same concessions that Scotland received. And once those countries have effective autonomy, the West Lothian question will return with a vengeance. If Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are given the same autonomy that a US state possesses, it hardly seems fair for England to be ruled directly by a Parliament with members from all four countries.
The partisan imbalance between the countries makes this problem even more intractable. Labour is strongest in Scotland and Wales, while the Conservative base is centered in England (Northern Ireland tends to elect MPs from local parties). Left-wing MPs from Wales and Scotland can therefore help pass policies that conservative England opposes. During his tenure, Tony Blair forced several measures that affected only England—such as the creation of foundation hospitals—through Parliament with the support of Scottish Labour MPs, over the objections of a majority of English MPs.
Cameron thus has to walk a fine line between fulfilling his promise and appeasing his own party, which demands a solution to the West Lothian question that protects the Conservatives’ sway in England. Accordingly, he has proposed increasing regional powers for all four countries in tandem. Yet it is unclear how such a policy would work. To create a separate parliament for England would be impractical—England is so massive that its own assembly would immediately eclipse the national Parliament. But merely requiring bills that affect only England to be supported by a majority of English MPs would hamstring any Labour government, which depends on Scottish and Welsh MPs to make up its majorities.
One potential compromise would devolve self-government not to England as a whole but to the various regions and localities that make it up. This is a radical proposal for a nation that once governed a quarter of the globe from the civil service offices in London and is still one of the most centralized countries in the Western world. But now that the UK’s days as an imperial hegemon are over, perhaps further internal devolution is a more promising model than continued Londonocracy. It could help to heal the societal malaise that has sprung up not just in Scotland but across the kingdom as the most promising political and economic talent is drawn to London, engendering anti-elite populist movements as disparate in their ideologies and goals as the progressive Scottish National Party and the right-wing, anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party. A UK where the regions have greater power will inevitably be less unified and less powerful globally, but it may be more attuned to the people’s will and more open to involvement in the European community. If devolution can accomplish that, then the failed referendum may yet prove to be a resounding success.