Ever since David Cameron wrong-footed his opponents on the morning after the independence referendum by meshing it to the question of extending more powers to Scotland, the question of English votes for English laws has never been far away.
William Hague is leading a cabinet committee that is due to produce proposals about how to proceed with the so-called West Lothian question (it is being boycotted by Labour, who see the issue as a trap designed to make it harder for them to govern). David Cameron has now given us a sense of where these deliberations are heading, saying that re-electing a Conservative government would ensure that English MPs were given a veto over legislative matters affected only them.
“There is a way of comprehensively answering this question in a way that maintains the integrity of our parliament and of our system,” he insisted during committee questions in the Commons.
But this is not a question for which we need to seek an answer. It makes more sense to think of it as a paradox of the sort that is quite common in political systems. There is no need to try to eradicate them. They are not a cause for alarm or concern.
More paradoxes than grains of sand
A paradox is a surprising combination of ideas such as a clash, or apparent clash, of principles. For instance it is paradoxical that nurses wake up their patients to give them sleeping pills. It is paradoxical to say, as Shakespeare did, that parting can be such sweet sorrow. It is paradoxical to note, as Bertrand Russell suggested, that the set of all numbers is no larger than the set of all odd numbers or the set of all even numbers since all three are infinite.
The steps required to eradicate paradoxes in our political system are often impractical or would cause more problems than they solve – even sometimes creating new paradoxes.
We do not allow everyone to vote. In order to vote, you must be an adult citizen. The presumption would seem to be that younger people lack intelligence, knowledge, experience or some such feature that is relevant to voting wisely and responsibly. Yet paradoxically, the votes of all adults count equally. Through ageing and injury, people can come to lose the faculties of memory, reasoning and so forth.
Nonetheless, they do not automatically lose their right to vote when they have lost the capacity to exercise that right meaningfully. On this logic, you could equally argue that some people should have more votes than others. The philosopher John Stuart Mill thought so.
There is another strand here. On the grounds that young people have the prospect of a long-term stake and interest in the country, the voting age was reduced to 16 years for the referendum. Yet we did not choose to remove the right to vote from those who did not have a long-term future in Scotland, such as the terminally ill, the very old or those who were about to emigrate. As with many paradoxes of course, these are ones that we are wise to ignore.
Endless grounds for disqualification
MPs who have urban constituencies that do not hold fox hunts voted on the bills which made fox-hunting illegal. MPs who do not have wind turbines, oil fields, nuclear power stations or coal mines in their constituencies vote on all matters pertaining to fuel policy. MPs who are deaf vote can vote on matters relating to noise abatement. MPs who are confirmed bachelors and childless vote on such matters as divorce legislation and childcare payments.
Creating a devolved legislative body at Holyrood in the absence of an equivalent body for England increased and compounded the paradoxes around Scottish special treatment in our political system. It certainly wasn’t the beginning of them, however. Ever since the inception of the union in 1707, the separate nature of Scots law, Scottish education and the role of the Church of Scotland created paradoxes.
Murderers more welcome over the border
Suppose a man is tried for murder in Carlisle in the north of England. If eight out of the 12 members of the jury are convinced he is guilty while four decide he was innocent, he cannot be found guilty of the crime. At least ten out of the jury of 12 members must agree for a guilty verdict to hold.
Now suppose the very same crime with the same people, evidence and so forth were committed just over the Scottish border. This might mean it were tried 85 miles away at the nearest high court in Glasgow, where there are 15 members on a jury and, even in a murder trial, a straight majority verdict can secure a verdict of guilty. This means that if there are again eight jurors that are convinced of the man’s guilt, he will be convicted.
We have chosen to live with paradoxes of this sort. Most people are not at all discomforted by them, and rightly so. Yet this is arguably a much more alarming paradox than the fact that Scottish MPs get to vote on matters that only apply to English constituencies.
The reality is this: parliament has an interest in what happens throughout the UK and MPs can comment and vote on it in their capacity as MPs. All MPs are equal as MPs. Like equal votes for all citizens is a principle of our particular political system, whether or not it is unfair or rationally defensible as an abstract principle.
We should be wary of calls to eradicate the West Lothian paradox unless we are ready to accept that we might thereby create other paradoxes and alter our particular democracy in unintended, unwanted ways. Scottish MPs voting on English matters is just one of a great many constitutional matters that look hard to defend on strict rational principles, but the key is always to look at the broader principle that lies behind them. It is time for David Cameron to stop seeking political advantage and embrace the paradoxical system over which he presides.