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The slogan “no taxation without representation” was prevalent in Boston in the years leading up to the American Revolution. The saying alluded to the UK Parliament’s direct power to tax the American colonies, even though the colonies did not send representatives to Parliament. In some cases, such as the Stamp Act of 1765, the taxes — passed unilaterally (that is, the American colonies were disenfranchised) in England — were solely imposed upon the colonies.

Fast forward 250 years and you’ll find a similar thing is happening in Parliament, only reversed: representation without taxation. It’s called the “West Lothian question,” after a Scottish Member of Parliament from West Lothian who noticed that he had the power to vote on matters which affected residents of England but not those in his own home of Scotland.

How? While Scotland is not a sovereign state, it has some powers — powers as granted to it by Parliament. (This is called “devolultion” and is seen in the United States as well; states are sovereigns but localities are not, and therefore the powers of towns and cities are typically devolved from their respective states.) Amongst these powers is the right to regulate education within Scotland, including e.g. school fees. And only Scots participate in that subnational government.

That’s all fine and good — except that England has opted to not set up its own subnational government. As there is no English lawmaking body to which the Parliament of the United Kingdom can devolve authority, Parliament maintains control over these otherwise-local matters as they pertain to England. As Scots have voting power in Parliament, they therefore participate in these matters — even though the outcome has no effect to the people they represent. That is, they maintain their representation in the matters, even though any taxation created does not apply to them.

In 2004, this came to a head. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair lobbied for “top-up” fees at English universities, which would allow the universities to charge students tuition. The plan, which would (because of devolution) not apply to Scottish students at Scottish universities, passed Parliament, 316-311. Of the 54 Scottish Members of Parliament, 46 voted in favor of the fee structure. The fees would not have passed but for the support of these 46 members whose constituents were mostly unaffected by the proposed law.

To date, the West Lothian question remains unsolved by Parliament, although the current government has agreed to explore solutions, some of which have been discussed onWikipedia.

Bonus factBy default, Washington, D.C. motorists — who do not have a voting member in the U.S. Congress — get license plates which read “Taxation Without Representation” on them.

From the Archives: Turkey and Chickens: How car companies make some of their cars in a way to avoid taxes.

Related: “Taxation without Representation: The History of Hong Kong’s Troublingly Successful Tax System” by Michael Littlewood.

Originally published

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