Towns united by a name but divided over Scottish 'bias'

MY husband said we should move to Scotland because they get everything for free," said Lesley McCauley, a 34-year-old business administrator from Blackburn in Lancashire.

Ms McCauley is one of the growing number of ordinary English people who are increasingly resentful of what they feel is Scotland's unfair advantage.

They don't know anything about the so-called West Lothian Question (WLQ), they know little about public-spending differences or the democratic deficit caused by devolution. But they have a feeling that Scots appear to be getting the better deal and they want something done about it.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Ms McCauley summed it up by saying: "They seem to be getting the best of both worlds." She lives in a town which, together with a Scottish town of the same name, has come to represent the embodiment of a political conundrum which has loomed over the UK's constitutional debate for almost 30 years.

And it is that seemingly intractable problem which is causing the feeling of unfairness which she is aware of in Blackburn, England, today.

In 1978, Tam Dalyell, then the MP for West Lothian, questioned the wisdom of Scottish devolution - a measure which, he claimed, would allow him to decide domestic matters for Blackburn in Lancashire but not for Blackburn in West Lothian.

The WLQ was born and, to give Mr Dalyell credit, he raised it time and time again.

Now the WLQ is back on the political agenda. This time, the perceived inequalities of Scotland's devolution settlement are being stirred up in England by the Conservatives, and some in the Labour Party, for their own political advantage.

The issue of democratic accountability remains at the heart of the WLQ, but it has become blurred by other arguments over the amount of money Scotland gets - 1,500 more per head per year than England - creating a general feeling in some parts of the country that England gets a raw deal.

The two Blackburns are similar in that they lie between two big, powerful cities (Edinburgh and Glasgow, and Manchester and Liverpool) but they are different in almost every other way.

West Lothian's Blackburn has a population of just 4,800. This nondescript town appears full of 1930s housing. It has one small shopping centre with just one pub and several fast-food outlets nearby.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

By comparison, Blackburn in Lancashire has a population of 100,000 and all the facilities, shops and infrastructure that go with it, including a Premiership football team.

A survey by The Scotsman on the streets of both Blackburns found that the term "West Lothian Question" is, indeed, just for political anoraks.

Only one person - and that was in West Lothian - knew what it was about, although several others in Blackburn, West Lothian, did guess that Mr Dalyell, their former MP, had something to do with it.

Bernard Molloy, 49, from Blackburn, West Lothian, knew what the question was and what it was about.

"My view is the same as Tam Dalyell's - Scots MPs should not be allowed to vote on English matters," he said, warning of growing English resentment over the issue.

"I have got English mates and they are texting me all the time, going on about what the Scots have got; they resent having a Scots Prime Minister as well."

Marion Owen, who is from Edinburgh but was visiting Blackburn, said: "I know the WLQ is to do with Tam Dalyell but I don't think we should be too worried about it."

THOMAS Gray, 77, from West Lothian, was more blunt.

He said: "[The WLQ] has something to do with Tam [Dalyell], but you could put the English in the bottom of the Channel - I couldn't care less about them."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But showing his negativity wasn't just confined to his neighbours south of the Border. Mr Gray added: "I don't care for independence, either."

Understandably, the attitude to the WLQ in Blackburn, West Lothian, was muted. After all, they have MSPs looking after their domestic affairs, MPs looking after their national interests and there is no democratic deficit there.

Also, there is little reason for any resentment in England over Scotland's advantages from devolution to spread north over the Border.

However, some did link the current debate over voting rights and finance to the wider issue of independence.

Ikram Ul Haq, 50, who runs a small supermarket in the West Lothian town, said: "West Lothian Question? No. I don't know [what it is]. But I think the English should have their own parliament. There is enough revenue coming from Scotland from whisky and oil to allow Scotland to stand on its own two feet. I would like to see independence."

In England, attitudes are clearly different. Instead of the couldn't-care-less view taken by many north of the Border, there is real evidence of a vague feeling of being unfairly treated.

Helen Maden, 59, a probation-service worker who lived in Castle Douglas for many years, said she thought Scotland got a better deal when it came to representation.

"They get two bites of the cherry," said Mrs Maden, referring to Scotland having its own parliament and also being represented at Westminster.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She added: "Whether Scotland gets a fare share of public money, I don't know, but they certainly spend it more wisely."

Edward Waghorn, 45, a security officer, said he disagreed with Scottish MPs being able to vote on English matters and not the other way round.

"It just seems like everyone is playing by different rules," said Mr Waghorn, who didn't believe Scotland would "manage" if it didn't get money from London.

Emma Randles, 30, a youth- justice worker, said she had heard of the debate but didn't know it was called the West Lothian Question.

"I think it should go to a referendum, north and south of the Border," said Miss Randles. "Scotland, according to something I read, gets more than its fair share [of funding], although I don't know what it is spent on."

One message that did come across was that the real facts about how much Scotland gets, what it is spent on and how each part of the UK is represented, did seem to have been obscured by a feeling that England is losing out because of Scottish devolution.

BETTING shop manageress Lesley Dewhurst said that, because "we are all one" at the moment, it should be equal rights for all parts of the UK.

"If they can vote on our issues we should be able to vote on theirs," she said. "I've never thought about money for Blackburn but I believe they get free national health and education that we don't get."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

What is clear is that there is a growing difference in attitudes north and south of the Border.

Scots do not tend to get too worked up over the issues of representation, democratic accountability and Treasury finance - principally because they have plenty of all three.

In England, however, there is a feeling, however indistinct, of unfairness.

Nobody really knows the details but they know the theme and, as that feeling grows, so will the campaign for change in the UK parliament.

English-only votes for MPs will strengthen the Union


I AM an unapologetic Unionist. In putting forward proposals to allow English MPs to have the last word on English business in the House of Commons, I do so in order to strengthen the United Kingdom. If I thought otherwise, or if I believed that any legitimate Scottish interest would be damaged, I would support the status quo, however unfair it has become.

When Scotland and Wales won their own parliament and assembly, it was argued by the government that this devolution was essential if the Scots and Welsh were to remain in the United Kingdom. Otherwise, we were warned, the Union would be weakened.

Now the same government is declaring that if England is given a significant degree of devolution, the Union is doomed. This is arrant nonsense. They cannot have it both ways.

Who in Scotland is going to be indignant that their MPs at Westminster will not vote on schools, hospitals or roads in England when English MPs no longer decide these matters in Scotland?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Nor will there be any shortage of work for Scottish MPs to do at Westminster. The Commons is still responsible for all the taxes people pay throughout Britain, all the public expenditure that is spent by both the British government and the Scottish Executive, all the pensions and social security payments we receive.

In the Queen's Speech, there were 29 bills announced. Of these, 18 apply throughout the United Kingdom, only 11 mainly to England. In any event, I cannot remember a Scottish MP choosing to speak in a debate on purely English matters. Quite sensibly, they concentrate, as do all MPs, on the issues which affect their own constituents.

Unlike in the past, the one part of the UK where there is growing resentment with the current constitution is England. This is not anti-Scottishness, but a feeling that the way Westminster now operates is unfair and needs to be reformed.

There is nothing that Alex Salmond and the SNP would like more than for this resentment in the south to be ignored and to grow to the point where the English became disillusioned with the Union.

Of course, we all understand why Gordon Brown and the Labour Party are frantic in trying to preserve the current unfairness. They fear that, because of their weaker political position in England, they might not be able to force through English-only legislation that does not have the support of a majority of English MPs. To which I say, too bad. That is what devolution and parliamentary democracy is all about.

An English Grand Committee for English business would not stop the government being able to govern, It would mean, as when we have had hung parliaments as between 1974 and 1979, that the government has, occasionally, to compromise with other parties in order to get its business through.

It is what American presidents have to do all the time if they do not control Congress, as at present.

The precise method we choose is less important than to deal with this unfinished business of devolution. When we have done so, the Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish will feel that the system is fair and responds to their interests.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

That way, and that way only, will the Union be strengthened for all the people of these islands.

• Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a Conservative MP and former Scottish secretary.


Blackburn - West Lothian

"Scots MPs should not be allowed to vote on English matters"

Bernard Molloy, 49

"I would like to see independence and the English having their own parliament"

Ikram Ul Haq, 50

"You could put the English in the bottom of the Channel. I couldn't care less"

Thomas Gray, 77

...and Blackburn - Lancashire

"We should move to Scotland because they get everything for free"

Lesley McCauley, 34

"At the moment, Scotland seems to be having its cake and eating it"

Simon Farnsworth

"If they can vote on our issues, we should be able to vote on theirs"

Lesley Dewhurst

"Whether they get a fair share, I don't know, but they spend it more wisely"

Helen Maden, 59