British lawmaker proposes 'English votes for English laws' plan

Proposal seeks to restrict Scottish lawmakers' voting powers when it comes to English-only issues

The morning after Scotland's referendum on independence, British Prime Minister David Cameron stood in front of his Downing Street residence and made a decisive statement.

"We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard," he said. "The question of English votes for English laws — the so-called West Lothian question — requires a decisive answer."

That pledge came to fruition Tuesday when William Hague, the leader of the House of Commons, outlined the Conservative Party's plans to restrict the voting powers of Scottish lawmakers when it comes to English-only issues.

In a speech in the House of Commons, Hague defined this as a "fundamental issue of fairness" and said his party believes that laws that affect only England — as opposed to the United Kingdom, which comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — should become law only if there is "the consent of the majority" of English members of Parliament.

This issue is not fundamentally new to British politics but was pushed to the forefront of the political agenda as a result of Scotland's hard-fought drive for secession from the rest of the U.K. in September.

Although Scotland ultimately voted to remain part of the United Kingdom — by a 55% majority — the main political parties agreed to give Scotland greater autonomy on issues such as the ability to raise taxes or change health and welfare benefits.

This in turn reopened the door on a debate over how much control England should have over solely English issues.

"Just as the people of Scotland will have more power of their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Ireland and Northern Ireland must have the opportunity to have a bigger say over theirs," Hague said in his address to members of Parliament.

The so-called command paper put forward four proposals, in itself a reflection of how difficult it has been to get any consensus on this issue within the Conservative-led coalition government.

The three Conservative options are banning Scottish members of Parliament from voting on English issues; allowing English lawmakers to have a greater say during the early stages of a bill; or giving English members veto powers over certain legislation. A separate proposal was put forward by coalition partners in the Liberal Democratic Party who want to establish a committee of English lawmakers to scrutinize legislation.

"Everybody seems to be accepting that there is a problem about 'English votes for English laws' and that something needs to be done," said Michael Keating, professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen and director of the Scottish Center for Constitutional Change. "But they don't agree what needs to be done about it."

As for the opposition Labor Party, Hague branded it "hostile" for failing to add its voice to the document.

However, the party hit back, saying the plan smacks of trickery.

"What we mustn't do only months after the Scottish people voted to keep our kingdom united is allow our country to be divided by the back door," the Labor Party's justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, said in the House of Commons.

With such diverging views, political watchers say there is unlikely to be any consensus anytime soon, certainly not before the May parliamentary elections. But this does not mean the issue will disappear.

"What this is doing is creating an agenda for the next Parliament," said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.

Boyle is a special correspondent.

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