Tam’s question and the elusive answer

The coalition is, a little tardily, to fulfil a pledge to appoint a commission of experts to find a solution to the West Lothian Question

Notebook is unsure whether Lord Palmerston ever made the remark attributed to him about the Schleswig-Holstein Question: “Only three people ... have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business – the Prince Consort, who is dead, a German professor, who has gone mad, and I, who have forgotten all about it.” Whoever said it, we could be forgiven for having similar feelings about the West Lothian Question.

The SHQ was about the disputed constitutional position of two duchies relative to Denmark and the German Confederation, which provoked two 19th century wars (that does not begin to explain its complexity). The WLQ is about the voting rights of Westminster MPs since devolution. The coalition is, a little tardily, to fulfil a pledge to appoint a commission of experts to answer it. Good luck to them: efforts have failed over more than a third of a century.

The question was first posed in the Commons on November 14 1977 by Labour’s Tam Dalyell, MP for West Lothian and arch anti-devolutionist: “For how long will English constituencies and English honourable members tolerate ... at least 119 honourable members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

Enoch Powell dubbed it the WLQ after Mr Dalyell pointed out the absurdity that he would be able to vote on matters affecting Blackburn, Lancashire, but not Blackburn, West Lothian. During the passage of the Scotland Bill, Mr Dalyell repeatedly said the question “cannot be asked too often” – to which an exasperated John Smith, devolution minister, finally burst out: “Yes it bloody well can!”

Solutions proposed over the years include: barring Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish members from voting on English matters; creating an English grand committee to vote on English bills, or having only English MPs debate them at committee stage; and creating regional assemblies in England or a devolved English parliament. All have run into objections, often to do with creating second-class MPs within a supposedly sovereign parliament.

Mr Dalyell, who has just published his autobiography, says the only way to answer the question is to scrap devolution or move to independence (he favours the former). Your Notebook writer has never lost much sleep over the WLQ either way: a complex union such as the UK will inevitably throw up anomalies. The question has been around so long it feels comfortingly familiar. To have it answered after all this time might be disconcerting.

Back to the future

The Trades Union Congress is meeting in London for the first time since 1902, a cost-saving measure, with 320 delegates crammed into Congress House rather than the 680 who attended last year’s conference in Manchester. Brendan Barber, general secretary, is trying to make the best of the historical echoes. He reminded delegates that, when the TUC met in Holborn town hall in 1902, the Labour party was two years old and it was a period of momentous change. “We are at such a turning point again,” he said, seeking to rally the troops ahead of what could be a bruising strike campaign over public sector pensions.

Predictive power

A US study has found that feeding a supercomputer with news stories can help predict world events. Could this be the salvation of the newspaper industry?

Print scribes are always striving to tell you what will happen in future rather than merely describing what has already taken place. A computer that could do so more accurately than fallible human employees would be a boon to hard-pressed managements.

Noble or crazy?

Once explorers crossed deserts and walked on the moon. Now we are transfixed by a comic actor swimming 140 miles along the Thames faced with 500,000 cubic metres of raw sewage. David Walliams’s charity swim has certainly caught the imagination. Perhaps we all need something crazy and pointless in our lives – or, at least, in someone else’s life.

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