This is a short, speculative post, inspired by some recent conversation with an English constitutional lawyer.
In this post, I make what is traditionally an unpopular argument. I am about to argue for MORE politicians. Please hear me out.
The Scotland Act 1998 laid the groundwork for the Scottish Parliament, but made no instant change to: 1) the powers of the MPs Scotland sends to the UK Parliament; or 2) the number of MPs Scotland sends to the UK Parliament. By not addressing point 1), the West Lothian Question Tam Dalyell posed in the 1970s found a place in the UK constitution, allowing Scots MPs to vote on whole panoply of matters whether such matters were Scottish or not, while English (and indeed Welsh and Northern Irish, forgive the Anglo-centric shorthand in the rest of this post) MPs would not be faced with matters now dealt with at Holyrood. (NB Section 28(7) of the Scotland Act 1998 allows Westminster to legislate on what it likes, including matters within Holyrood’s legislative competence, but political reality and convention combine to stay Westminster’s hand.)
After the Scottish Parliament was in full swing, Scotland’s traditionally healthy representation at Westminster was cut, from 72 MPs to 59 MPs. I can think of two broad justifications for this. One is that Scotland does not need a big squad of MPs at Westminster when so many issues are now dealt with by the Scottish Parliament. A second is that England should not be subjected to the [possibility of] votes of a big block of Scots MPs on non-Scots issues.
The first justification still stands. It would stand taller if the Smith Commission’s Report leads to more powers for Holyrood.
The second justification also still stands, absent any English Votes for English Laws measure (EVEL). However, an argument can be made that the justification stands more precariously if the role of Scots MPs is reduced to dealing with pan-UK issues. There is a strong argument that Scotland should have a healthy voice in such pan-UK issues. After Scotland’s vote to stay in the UK, it may be going too far to suggest Scotland should have, for example, a veto on exiting the EU. So what model is appropriate? That is difficult to pin down, mainly because it is tricky to have a federal set up when one of the notional federal units has so much of the population (* see below). But we had a model before that helped with that, even a just a little bit. It involved Scotland having more MPs per head of population.
This point may have been made elsewhere (please let me know if it has), but at one level I find it striking that not much has been made of this. The EVEL proposals brought forward by William Hague for the coalition do at least suggest Scottish MP numbers should not be decreased, but is there not a strong argument that they be increased as a condition precedent to any EVEL reform?
This is not a fully formed idea, and I do not hold myself out as a constitutional lawyer, so there may be something I have missed. As ever, thoughts welcome.
*I understand the nearest analogy of an actual federal system with one unit having as much of the population as England has in the UK is Ontario with regard to Canada. Even then, the ratio of Ontario’s population ratio within the population of Canada does not come close to England’s within the UK.