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The Northumbrian question and devo-max for England

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

42 Comments

  1. redshift says:

    Well said. Quite frankly I don’t care if the 3 northern regions each get an assembly\parliament or if there is a single northern parliament but either way it is high time we got to set some of our own priorities especially around manufacturing and transport rather than being treated like the south east’s neglected back garden. Clearly there is a massive divergence in interests because of the north south divide. We can’t focus the whole of england on services and banking. We need a manufacturing base.

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  3. Ian Sutcliffe says:

    I agree that we need more maufacturing in the United Kingdom. I also think that the only place in England with wealth is London. If our industry was focused less on Banking And more on Heavy industry the North of England would be a lot more rich. Devolution for the north of England will not work in my opinion with us all being poverty. We will need the infastructures and low value currencies in place in order to trade our goods that we produce with China, India and Brazil. Does anyone know of any think tanks that could take these ideas on?

  4. old Albion says:

    That’s the ticket, divide England into nine regions. Exactly what the EU(ssr) want.

  5. Nick Illingworth says:

    Are you assuming that the English regions, without an English parliament to accompany them, will have the same devolved powers as the Scottish parliament? If so, this means a separate transport policy, separate health policy, separate education policy for Northumbria, E Midlands etc. etc. So this presumably also means a Dept of Transport (E Midlands) to face off to Scottish Transport etc. How will that work? On the reasonable assumption that this is not the proposal, who are you proposing should have democratic oversight on transport, health, etc.? The current UK parliament, Scottish MPs and all? Let’s have no more nonsense about continued discrimination against England – let’s have an English parliament. If you want devolved powers to the regions that’s fine, but in the context of a fully democratic solution at all levels, state, national, regional and local.

  6. brian says:

    So why isn’t Scotland divided into regions then? Surely the same logic would apply to it too.

    The problem is the Union. If England was independent then you could have an English Parliament, and decentralisation to the local level.

    My proposal? How about we make England independent, AND THEN decentralise power to the counties and cities, towns and even the people by holding local and national referendums.

  7. David Kelly says:

    What about asking the people of England what form of governance what we want, instead of the Brit political classes giving us what they patronisingly consider to be in our ‘best interests’? We have the same citizenship as residents of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and we pay the same taxes. If democracy is good enough for 15% of the population, it’s good enough for 100% of us.

  8. Home Rule for England says:

    “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………..”

    Nine NHS’s in England plus the three in Scotland Wales and N.Ireland. Nine education systems in England etc. etc. There is already anger because Scotland and Wales get free prescriptions, university fees, elderly care etc. What if people in the NE of England pay for prescriptions but those in the SE don’t? People in some regions of England have to sell their houses to pay for elderly care those in other regions don’t etc etc. Are you seriously proposing we have such a post code lottery in England?

  9. Maria says:

    Didn’t the North East vote strongly AGAINST regionalisation in the referendum? National government for England first, please, that would bring democracy far closer with no MPs from outside England forcing the likes of foundation hospitals and foundation schools on us ever again. Then England’s own parliament, perhaps based in Leeds or Birmingham, could take care of its internal system of governance. Counties? Regions? Whatever.

  10. James Allan says:

    Balkanizing England will only help the EU, itself a fundamentally undemocratic organisation. It seems to me that the only solution to the problems of the Union is to end the Union.

    English independence will free up billions of pounds of English taxpayers’ money which currently goes to our neighbours and which should instead be directed to those parts of England and to those of our fellow countrymen and women who need it the most.

    A fairer and united social democratic England is what we need, not silly token assemblies everywhere.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Well, I seem to have attracted quite a number of English nationalists. You all seem to be blind to the electoral arithmetic. 95% of the population of the UK lives ih England. For centuries, the English have dominated political decision-making in Britain and imposed their will on Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In the thirteen years since Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland have had some influence over their affairs – just some influence of course since the purse strings and many areas of expenditure have remained under the control of the English dominated government/parliament – they have exercised not much influence over the 95% who live in England. Even if there was a case for an English parliament, which I dispute, there’s nothing urgent about it. It would not bring power any closer to anyone except a handful of politicians.

      And as to the English regions, why should they not have the powers that the Scottish and Welsh now have. One English region, London, already has an assembly, of course. It has a population almost 50% bugger than Scotland’s and does, quite rightly have control of its transport infrastructure. Indeed, all but one of the nine English regions – the existing ones, though I am not wedded to their boundaries – have a larger population than Wales, and all are larger than Northern Ireland. Why should they not take over the external funding of local government, of their transport infrastructures, or railways and airports and health services, of economic development and planning?

      I know that many of you may dislike comparison with other European countries, but a majority of the English regions are larger in population than 11 EU member countries. Devolving power in Scotland is hardly the same as English devolution.

      And as to postcode lotteries: it’s a good term when applied to NHS regions or districts with different policies when there is no internal democracy in the NHS. But if they are run by elected authorities, whio should they not pursue different policies. Pople in Scotland and Wales have “get free prescriptions, university fees, elderly care” because they elected governments that promised them. What’s wrong with that?

  11. Alun Palmer says:

    This is exactly what the (Scottish) leaders of the Labour party came up with to head off the chance that England might get some of its political power back. A large number of regional assemblies serves no useful purpose, just adding more bureaucrats. Something short of an English parliament might solve the Midlothian problem, but 9 regions is far too many. The only real divide within England is North/South, so how about just having TWO? That would make far more sense than anything Labour has come up with.

  12. Toque says:

    @Jon Lansman

    No, 95% of the population does not live in England.

    No, ‘the English’ have not imposed their will on the Scottish, Welsh and Irish. If you’d have said ‘The Crown’ or the ‘British political class’ you might sound more plausible, but I’d still have to point out that ‘the English’ have been imposed upon by them too.

    English nationalists perhaps dislike comparison with other EU countries because other EU countries have their own national parliaments and governments. If England were independent, I’m sure you’d get no argument at all from English nationalists about devolving power within England (you’re confusing nationalism with statism). It’s not devolution that people are opposed to, it’s devolution as a means of denying England its political integrity – which is what you do.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Toque: I stand corrected on my late-night arithmetic: 84% live in England. I accept that “the English” in my comment refers to the political or ruling class, but, by the same token, the English are hardly ruled by the Scots, and I don’t perceive much difference between the UK political class and the English political class, but then I just don’t see things in national terms very much at all.

  13. Fungus Addams says:

    Once again the Socialist Left seem to think the answer to the devolution woes of the UK is to sacrifice England in order to appease Celtic sensibilities and mollify their pride.

    Well maybe they should actually try something they never did when they were drunk on power for 14 years; actually engage with and listen to the people of England.

    There is no appetite for the break up of England into regions, whether they be in a federal UK or the socialist EUssr. Why this is so difficult for the Left to understand is beyond comprehension.

    There is an appetite for devolution and the establishment of an English parliament, so one should be established, preferably by removing the House of Lords. Local government in England can then receive a range of devolved powers to shift the weight of central government to a broader, more localised base.

    Scotland and Wales can fend for themselves, as is their desire.

    Let’s have no more talk of English regions!

  14. Chris says:

    To devolve 3 countries out of 4 and chop up England is not only never going to work it’s discriminatory and racist. England is the oldest nation state in Western Europe and the majority wish for this to be restored. The argument that giving England a Paliament will brake the Union is not only false, it’s proven to be. Regions would cause mass red tape cost far mort than a Parliament and definately lead to the Break up of the UK, which is braking now. A Full dedicated English Parliament is urgently required now, and no more talk of this racial discrimination of regions and idiotic ideas like that.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Chris:
      Racist? Can’t take your comment seriously at all I’m afraid.

  15. harry says:

    Carwen jones is a welsh politician,john prescott a welshman they seem very eager to regionalise England,an English parliament with the same or similar powers to the other devolved”nations” is the only fair way forward for England.

  16. Kenneth says:

    I am not an English nationalist. I am not even English. But where your post seems to miss the point entirely is in the way it fails to acknowledge that demos are fundamental to democracy.

    You even say yourself that you are not wedded to the current English regional boundaries – suggesting very clearly that there is no very distinct demos for each of the current (or even future) English regions.

    Your proposal – whilst perhaps eminently sensible for organizing the internal governance of England – won’t solve the problem of England as a whole being unfairly and ultimately inaccurately represented at the national level.

    It is simply unsustainable for the UK Government and Parliament to continue having such an important role viz a viz England but not viz a viz Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It ends up with Scotland, Wales and NI feeling like they’re being treated as virtual English colonies, and England feeling like it’s having important decisions about its future being made by representatives from the colonies.

    I actually really don’t understand the objections to a federal system, with symmetrically-endowed legislatures and executives in each of the four nations and then a federal legislature and executive – perhaps tweaking Carwen Jones’ proposal a little to give England somewhat more representation in the legislature’s upper house.

    Also, one issue your proposal seems to skirt around is that of primary law-making powers. Are you really suggesting that each region of England should have the full panoply of legislative powers that Holyrood has? That would certainly be fun for political journalists, but I’m not sure there’s an appetite in England for that.

    Finally, it behoves us all to be respectful of the other side in debates like this. No-one is suggesting that we should kill small children. “…let’s hear no more nonsense about an English parliament” fails that respect test in my humble opinion.

  17. old Albion says:

    First a correction. England is approx. 85% of the (dis)UK population.
    Second, your last paragraph;

    Pople in Scotland and Wales have “get free prescriptions, university fees, elderly care” because they elected governments that promised them. What’s wrong with that?

    Absolutely nothing……except. When i asked my MP (Conservative) Why can’t England have free prescriptions. I was told the country (sic) can’t afford it.
    Strange how Scotland can afford it, yet England can’t. How do they pay for all the freebies? What don’t they get in exchange for all the freebies.
    Oh wait………..they get £1600/per person more than an English person. Thanks to the Barnett bribe that’s it!

  18. David Kelly says:

    Mr Lansman, you don’t state anywhere whether you would ask the people of England if they want regional assemblies, or you would simply impose such a system. What is it to be? As I said earlier, it is essential that we be asked, just like our neighbours in the currently devolved countries.

    Isn’t it strange that the British state ‘can afford’ to spend billions on wars that nobody outside the political class wants, but can’t afford to provide decent social services for the people of England?

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      David Kelly: I certainly do think that the creation of regional assemblies should be subject to popular approval in a referendum. That’s why I look at the dramatic increase in support for devolution in the three referenda held in Wales. I think that support for genuine devolution of power in the North (as opposed to the sham last time) would win much greater backing.

  19. Home Rule for England says:

    “And as to the English regions, why should they not have the powers that the Scottish and Welsh now have.”
    And what’s the next step after that John? Full independence for the NE of England? IThat possibility seems as logical as your arguments for regionalisation. Then what? The NE decides to remain within the EU but the North West decides to leave. Do we have passport controls at the border between the NE of England and the NW of England?
    I happen to want England to remain as a unified nation. I don’t want it broken down into 9 different nations! I want to be able to visit the NE of England without having to show my passport or show an E111 to get treatment at a hospital!

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      “Home Rule for England”: I’m pretty neutral on full independence for Scotland – it’s up to them, but then I’m not as obsessed about the concept of “nation” and nation-states as you are. I’m sceptical that it would arise for the NE but , if it does, it will be a matter for them. I’m in favour of democratic government at many different levels, as many as there are levels at which important decisions are taken: from the very local to city or county, region, UK, the European and even beyond. Identity is complex, government is complex, so too must democracy be multi-tiered.

      My identity is complex – I’m an Eastender, a Londoner, a Jew, British, European and above all an internationalist and a socialist. I must say that Englishness ranks pretty low in my identity pecking order though. I accept it is more important to many other people, but seperate tiers of government at English and UK levels make little financial sense for anyone in my judgement, even if their Englishness is more important to them.

      What I do also value, however, is diversity: Scottish, Welsh and Irish, Cornish and Geordie and Scouse, Jamaican and Bengali and Jewish, and much more besides.

  20. Home Rule for England says:

    Or maybe change my pounds into Euros or vice versa if some English nations decide to stay in with Sterling and others decide to join the Euro!

  21. Terry says:

    “Never mind the West Lothian question…”

    … and therein lies the reason poor kids in the north are charged an education tax and why we now have a soon to be privatised NHS (it started with foundation hospitals.

  22. Nitbuntu says:

    “I happen to want England to remain as a unified nation. I don’t want it broken down into 9 different nations! I want to be able to visit the NE of England without having to show my passport or show an E111 to get treatment at a hospital!”

    I’m sorry to be impolite, but the above comment is a very stupid.

    Those in Germany who live in the state of Bavaria do not need a passport when visiting any other German states, so why would any other possible future ‘states’ in the UK or England impose passport controls? Does Germany seem like a ‘broken up’ country to you?

  23. Nitbuntu says:

    “Or maybe change my pounds into Euros or vice versa if some English nations decide to stay in with Sterling and others decide to join the Euro!”

    It depends on how much power you devolve. There are certain things which you do as a nation (e.g. Defence, macroeconomic policies etc) and there are many things its best to let individual regions look after. Macroeconomic policies such as which currency to use is not something you’d expect an individual state would be allowed to opt for without any consent from the ‘center’.

  24. David Kelly says:

    Do you also believe that the voters throughout England should be offered the chance to have a referendum on an English parliament? In other words, do you believe we should be allowed what we want, rather than what the political class wants us to have?

    As I said earlier, we all pay the same taxes and have the same citizenship throughout this far-from-united kingdom.

  25. Home Rule for England says:

    Nitbuntu “It depends on how much power you devolve. There are certain things which you do as a nation (e.g. Defence, macroeconomic policies etc) and there are many things its best to let individual regions look after. Macroeconomic policies such as which currency to use is not something you’d expect an individual state would be allowed to opt for without any consent from the ‘center’”.

    I am talking about the logical extension of John’s argument. Scotland has devolved powers but is now looking to independence. If England is broken down into nine regions then what is to stop people like you from arguing for full independence? An independent NE of England could decide to leave the pound and join the Euro etc.

  26. Home Rule for England says:

    Jon “What I do also value, however, is diversity: Scottish, Welsh and Irish, Cornish and Geordie and Scouse, Jamaican and Bengali and Jewish, and much more besides”.

    You choose to leave Scottish Welsh and Irish intact. Why not also say Catholic, Protestant, Highlander, Lowlander, Islander, Welsh speaker, Scotch Irish and so on ?

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      “Home Rule for England”: Indeed, I could have taken it further. Highlanders and Lowlanders are undoubtedly quite distinct and that identity was undoubtedly more important than Scottishness until after the Act of Union. I see religions as more about faith than identity (my own Jewishness is a secular, cultural matter) but I accept that for many in Belfast or Glasgow (& elsewhere) they go beyond that.

  27. Stephen Gash says:

    The Northumbrian question has already been answered. It was one of two counties to actually get a vote on regions and 78% booted them into the long grass. Labour ignored that poll and imposed its reviled regions upon the whole of England. I say reviled because support for regions grubs around the leaf litter at about 9%. Every poll shows that, including the latest IPPR one. Only the England-haters support regions and they, by the way, include the Tories who are imposing regions on England by introducing regional benefits and pay as well as public service mergers. Thanks for nothing Labour.

  28. michelle says:

    England should have her own parliament, and it should read “lets have no more of this regional assemblies”. However I am in total agreement with what a fair few people hear say and that is getting industry back, and spreading the wealth throughout the country, not everyone can work in banking/consultancy, and all those other fancy titled non-jobs that sprung up, and the left are the worst for that. I’m originally from the middle of England, but lived South for a good few years, and get so annoyed with this idea that everyone down south is rich in highly paid jobs. No no no! There are extremely poor areas with no industry just low paid low prospect jobs. That is very hard when you live in an area where there is a lot of wealth for those that can earn high salaries. What about all the poor folk in the West Country who can barely afford to rent a home because it’s become fashionable and commutable for trendy media types to live there.
    It’s a common and very wrong perception.

  29. old Albion says:

    If you were honest you would admit this whole article is designed to promote your version of diversity and self-determination, as long as England is not included.
    I’m afarid you expose yourself as a left-wing England hater.

  30. Home Rule for England says:

    “I could have taken it further. Highlanders and Lowlanders are undoubtedly quite distinct and that identity was undoubtedly more important than Scottishness until after the Act of Union”.

    Got any evidence for that? Why don’t you look at the evidence provided by polls in the NE which show the vast majority don’t want regional government. Why don’t you write
    ‘The identity of the people of the NE of England is undoubtedly quite distinct and that identity was undoubtedly more important than Englishness until after the unification of England in 927AD’?

  31. David Kelly says:

    ‘Eastender’? Sorry to appear pedantic, but that should be written as ‘East Ender’. I was born in Essex to East End parents, so I know what I’m talking about here. Such a mistake is sign of a potential phoney, the type who reads the Guardian and pretends to be (or at least care about the) working class.

  32. DJAsher says:

    More power to the English counties I say – much more. Above the English counties only the national parliament of England. Below the English counties more devolved power for city, town, parish and individual. Sorted.

    As shown in last years BBC Com Res poll for Radio 4 the desire for English independence is rising. According to that survey 36%of English people already want independence for England (50% among C2s the skilled working class).

    The longer the British establishment ignores the English the more we will want out of the UK. The future’s bright – home rule for England.

  33. Home Rule for England says:

    Well said DJ Asher.

    ‘The futures bright – the futures red and white’!

  34. Dominic says:

    Well said. I believe that the northern regions should have power over their own affairs. Newcastle being part of Scotland would be even better – we’re more culturally ‘Scottish’ in a few ways, particularly in being more Left-wing, and are closer to Edinburgh than London; but I’m not sure there would be sufficient support for Newcastle to become part of Scotland.

    Still, a North-East assembly with powers over the things you mentioned would be a good compromise.

  35. Okay for regional devolution but please lets here no more about the artifical government zones that nobody knows or likes. The Cornish don’t want a South West region! The only region for Cornwall is Cornwall: http://mebyonkernow.blogspot.com/2012/02/peter-hain-and-labour-ten-years-late.html

  36. West Saxon says:

    Philip R Hosking;
    “Okay for regional devolution but please lets here no more about the artifical government zones that nobody knows or likes. The Cornish don’t want a South West region! The only region for Cornwall is Cornwall: http://mebyonkernow.blogspot.com/2012/02/peter-hain-and-labour-ten-years-late.html

    Wessex doesn’t want a South West region either, and the Hampshire and Isle of Wight part of Wessex dislike being (since the 90′s) lumped into the richer South East, when their economies are more in line with the Wessex area.

    There are distinct regional identities within England but the problem with regional division is who decides on the boundaries? I’m sure as hell it won’t be thrown to the people to decide where they feel their loyalties lie. It will be imposed from the top down and discrepancies like the Hampshire/Wight/South East (or Cornwall/South West) will arise all over England leaving many people who may have voted in favour, feeling displaced. Then what happens?

    Fully devolved federal system for all constituent nations first, then we can decide on regions if the will is there.

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