David Davis Creates a new West Lothian Question

June 14, 2008

The proposed by-election forced by David Davis has created a new variation of the West Lothian question. If we can’t deal with the earlier dilemma, we will be unlikely to deal with this new version

The resignation of David Davis has sparked intense debate. The more so, because no one has offered a convincing argument which demonstrates how the proposed single-issue by-election is going to work. It seems to me that we have a paradox not unlike the one contained in the so-called West Lothian question.

This now is shorthand for an old argument advanced about the dangers of devolution, by the MP Tam Dalyell. He illustrated the problem in terms of his own West Lothian constituency in Scotland.

One of the better explanations can be found in an article by the BBC’s Brian Taylor, written almost exactly a decade ago.

At the core of the original debate was the right of Scottish MPs to vote on English affairs (from within Westminster), while there is no equivalent right for English MPs to vote on Non-English (Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish matters) matters where responsibilities had been devolved.

Today, the question is more commonly assumed to challenge the fact that Scottish members at Westminster would continue to vote upon English matters while MPs from England had lost the power to influence Scottish affairs which had been devolved to Edinburgh …According to Mr Dalyell and others, this would create resentment in England and overall constitutional instability. It is argued it could ultimately break the Union.

The Haltemprice and Howden question does not have quite the same euphony as does the earlier West Lothian one. But the more I think about it, the more intrigued I am about the similarities.

The puzzlement arises as we attempt to assess the way in which the democratic process is exercised within a representative democracy. The West Lothian example suggests that sometimes voting rights give an advantage to some voters over others. Under threat is the hallowed principle of one person one vote. The puzzle has baffled a large number of clever people for nearly forty years.

I don’t want to try to resolve the West Lothian thing here. (Although I suspect a good starting point would be to take a systems view, rather than apply the more usual reductive thinking applied). But that doesn’t matter for the point I want to make.

The Haltemprice and Howden Question

To link this conundrum with the current situation, we have to make a few contextual adjustments. Instead of considering representatives voting in Parliament, we now have to consider the next level ‘down’.

That is to say, we have to look at the process in a single constituency, now deciding on its next representative, under unusual circumstances.

Normally, each voter in a constituency is presumed capable of assessing which of the candidates can best represent his or her needs, in a ‘full and fair’ election. The decision in principle and in practice approximates to a vote for the party that best represents each individual casting a vote.

Now consider the Haltemprice and Howden by-election as is unfolding. The incumbent MP, David Davis resigns. The resignation statement implies that he will fight on a single issue, which is to do with a creeping erosion of civil liberties, culminating the Government’s maneuvers over the 42 day detention and related votes last week.

The New Midlothian Question

The new Midlothian question might be put as follows. How should someone vote in the by-election if they want David Davis to represent them, but also want to support the 42 Day Bill? Similarly we could ask the converse question for someone wishing to get rid of David Davis, while wanting to support the bill?

The question illustrates something tricky in decision-making for the voters of Haltemprice and Howden.

Public enthusiasm, and dead parrots

However, David Davis is on to something. There is a public mood afoot to find ways of telling our elected representatives to do something more to meet individual needs and concerns. Not just in Haltemprice and Howden, not just in The United Kingdom, but around the world. I haven’t even had time to digest the news from Ireland yesterday [June 1th 2008] where voters seem to have declared the European Treaty a dead duck.
Or do I mean a dead parrot, or turkey?

Now that’s an even bigger political dilemma.