To the ears of comparative political scientists, the idea of an ‘unwritten constitution’ sounds like a bit of an oxymoron. While it is possible to argue that vagueness and flexibility of Britain’s founding documents have served the British Isles well over the years, the resulting constitutional hodge podge of an ‘asymmetric unitary state’ is starting to look unsustainable. Over the next few years, it is likely that the limits of the current system will be tested by the diverging ambitions of Scotland and England.
The devolution settlements of the late 1990s led to the establishment of legislative assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with differing powers. No equivalent legislative body was set up in England (or in the English regions) leaving the Westminster Parliament as the main legislative body for England. This situation is becoming untenable as the Scottish Parliament (already the most powerful of the devolved assemblies) demands the delivery of promised extra powers, while the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has played to the discontent of English voters by suggesting that Scottish MPs should no longer be able to vote on legislation that applies to England only.
Cameron is right to point out the unfairness of Scottish MPs voting on matters that do not affect their constituents. However, the paradox of the West Lothian Question has only haunted the legislative process in the United Kingdom for the last forty years because of the contradiction inherent in current legislative arrangements. Westminster increasingly acts as a quasi-federal assembly for the people of Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales and Northern Ireland), but remains the primary legislature for the people of England. Attempting to solve this contradiction purely by excluding Scottish MPs from much of the work of the Westminster Parliament would be the political equivalent of two cyclists attempting to ride a tandem bicycle in opposite directions.
In advocating ‘English votes for English laws’, David Cameron is essentially proposing that Westminster move further towards being a dual English and a British legislature. This is a terrible idea. If Westminster is not free to focus on matters that unite England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, instead becoming a source of further division, then we cannot be surprised if the home nations drift further apart in the coming years. Surely a more logical solution would be a devolution settlement for England that meets the ambitions articulated by David Cameron, combined with a Westminster Parliament that is designed to bring the four nations together in a common purpose.