Never mind the West Lothian question, what about the Northumbrian question? Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, the process of devolution to Scotland, Wales and (Northern) Ireland will continue. And all that the commentariat can talk about is who in Westminster should wield the power — a UK parliament or an English one. If it’s wrong for Scottish MPs to exercise influence over the North East of England, wouldn’t it be preferable to devolve power than just shuffle it about in London? The call from the Hannah Mitchell Foundation in yesterday’s Observer is timely. And, by the way, isn’t an English Parliament bound to be a greater threat to a federal Britain then ever was a Scottish one?
It isn’t just the EDL and others on the far right that poisons the cause of English nationalism. It is that no-one — apart from a few politicians — will feel any closer to power as a result of an English parliament. Its creation wouldn’t amount to devolution. And yet, its creation, like that of the Russian presidency under Yeltsin, would most certainly threaten the Union. Within a federal UK, in the sharing out of resources between ‘devolved’ parliaments, the dominance of the English would always alienate the others that remained.
That is why Carwen Jones is right to argue in the Guardian that a more devolved UK requires a new constitutional settlement: he suggests “a new upper house with equal representation from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.” Unfortunately, this formula doesn’t stack up. It might be OK for Wyoming to have the same representation in the US Senate as California (with a population 66 times larger) and the other 49 states, but equality of representation doesn’t wash in a federation of 4 where England has a population 28 times that of Northern Ireland. It could be different if power was also devolved to the English regions.
Now it is certainly true that John Prescott’s attempt to devolve power to the English regions was a disaster. But it failed through a lack of New Labour’s ambition and will. Without the backing of Blair — “never a passionate devolutionist” as he understates it in his autobiography A Journey (p251) — or that of his Ministers who, department by department, refused to delegate Whitehall’s powers — the offer on regional devolution in 2004 was tokenistic, half-baked and rightly rejected. But the time has come to move on from the defeat of devolution in the North-East referendum for several reasons:
- Devolution in Wales and Scotland has moved on in public support and changed the constitutional background. From rejection and near-rejection in the 70s, support for devolution has grown since it was granted in 1999 and the public now demands ever more devolved powers. Wales has just voted for more and “Devo max” has majority support in Scotland (3-2 in favour, whilst on independence it’s neck-and-neck).
- If Wales could change from 4-to-1 rejection of devolution in 1979 to acceptance 18 years on, and two-thirds demanding still more 14 years after that, could not the North East shift similarly? There are factors which make this more likely in the North East: Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher found that “‘No’ voters appeared to be more committed to stopping an Assembly than ‘Yes’ voters” leading to a higher turnout (or response rate since it was a 100% postal ballot) from devolution opponents. Voters were also affected by general dissatisfaction with government policy (including over Iraq) and a distrust of politicians in general, and, given the limited powers of the proposed assembly, tended to believe that they were likely to increase costs without delivering benefits for the regional economy or raising the region’s profile in Europe.
- The North-South divide continues to widen, increasing the case for a stronger regional voice and new powers to rectify the balance.
What is needed now is a commitment to the incremental development of regional authorities, starting in the North East, Yorkshire & the Humber and the North West with substantial devolution of powers from Whitehall over health, social services and education, universities and training, employment and regeneration, transport and planning, housing, waste management and the environment. It does not have to be a one-size fits all approach, any more than was devolution to the ‘nations’ of Scotland and Wales. London, of course, already has devolved government but needs a substantial increase in what powers are devolved to it.
This is the basis for a new constitutional settlement in England and the UK. It would provide a healthier basis for interaction with Scotland and Wales, for the development of the UK and for England; for government, democracy and parliament. Federalism may also prove a more attractive and durable offer to Scotland and Wales than Unionism.
And let’s hear no more nonsense about an English parliament.