Monday, 2 July 2012

Time for English devolution

Even before I joined the Lib Dems I was a passionate believer in devolution for England. And having joined the Lib Dems and coming across the federalist principles that the party believes in has made me even more convinced of the need for English devolution.

As it stands, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all have devolved governments with varying degrees of power. I think this is an excellent thing. As a liberal I believe that all power should be devolved to the lowest possible level so that people can run their own lives.

The problem is, however, that the English get none of the benefits in devolution. Devolved governments tend to be much more responsive to the needs of their area - while one big centralised government by its very nature can't be aware of and account for the varying needs of different parts of the country. So in Scotland and Wales prescription charges have been abolished, for example, and there are lots more resources devoted to isolated, impoverished communities that the UK government would have missed and, did in fact miss for decades. Despite that, however, the UK remains the most centralised state in all of Europe - which is saying something when you consider that tiny countries like Luxembourg have less centralisation than we do.

There's also what's referred to as the West Lothian Question - which basically boils down to the anomaly that, because of devolution, Scottish MPs can vote on laws which only affect England but English MPs can't vote on laws which only affect Scotland.

I used to think that an English Parliament, with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament, was the answer. However, I then came across people who pointed out that an English Parliament would be so big (Scotland has a population of five million, England has a population of fifty million) that it would effectively take away all of the work from the UK parliament and leave it with nothing to do.

And that's without mentioning that England is so big that an English Parliament would still have most of the problems of centralisation which we already have. The only thing it would fix is the West Lothian Question - and I'm not sure that that's worth the expense of an entire new tier of politicians.

The last government toyed with the idea of Regional Assemblies but the only one they managed to set up was the London Assembly (which is essentially irrelevant as the Mayor holds most of the power) and their attempt to create regional assemblies in the rest of England was rejected by voters in a referendum in the North East. And, to be honest, I don't blame the voters for rejecting the regional assemblies. They would have had very limited powers and would have covered areas far too large to have any kind of coherent identity - and I'd argue that coherent national identities are precisely what make the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies so successful. And of course, a large criticism of the regional assemblies, even from supporters of English devolution, was that they would effectively split up England and remove its identity as a single country.

So here's my idea for a solution. Given the size of England a parliament is impractical. And attempts to break the country up into artificial regions will fail because no one identifies with the artificial boundaries that they represent. Therefore I think what we need is to break England up into smaller areas which already have local identities and which have populations of a size where devolution becomes practical - not too big and not too small.

What I'd like to see is for the ceremonial counties of England (Sussex instead of East and West Sussex and Brighton and Hove, Yorkshire instead of the current fragments of it, etc.) to be restored and reunited with existing county councils being abolished. Instead, they would be replaced by new County Assemblies with powers on a par with that of the Welsh Assembly and be elected by proportional representation in the form of STV in order to make sure that demographics couldn't allow any one political party a stranglehold on power (at present, pretty much every county council is tory run and has been for decades despite them getting less than half of the vote).

The assemblies could probably make do with the same number of members that the county councils have already so somewhere like my native Sussex would have an assembly of 164 assembly members which would be enough to make sure that every area and community was adequately represented.

The big question would be what would happen to existing local authorities such as local borough/district councils - not to mention the unitary councils in some places. In my opinion the simplest thing to do would be to keep the district and borough councils (basically the same thing with different names) as they are and then to rename the unitary councils but also grant all of their powers to district and borough councils. This is, of course, under the assumption that cities would be part of the county assemblies - something which I think would be a good idea as it would be rather anomalous for every city to just end up surrounded by a doughnut county which, in terms of governance, would be completely separate.

To me, the appeal of county assemblies is that it would make things truly responsive to local people. We could see local democratic control of health services and education and policing and educational development. It would also help revive the county identities and traditions that have nearly died out.

And, above all, it would finally give us a truly federal United Kingdom. When we consider that the US state of New Hampshire has a population no larger than that of most English ceremonial counties.

But, this is just my opinion. I'd be very curious as to what you think.

For reference, the current powers of the Welsh Assembly are as follows:
  • Agriculture, fisheries, forestry and rural development
  • Ancient monuments and historic buildings
  • Culture
  • Economic development
  • Education and training
  • Environment
  • Fire and rescue services and promotion of fire safety
  • Food
  • Health and health services
  • Highways and transport
  • Housing
  • Local government
  • Public administration
  • Social welfare
  • Sport and recreation
  • Tourism
  • Town and country planning
  • Water and flood defence
  • Welsh language

9 comments:

  1. The problem in England is London which is still ruling as it was in the 16th century and until that is brought into the 21st century you are 'flogging a dead horse' but good luck in your endeavours.

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    1. Not really.

      London, for example, might be the largest single part of the UK's economy but the combined economies of northern cities such as Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester are much larger than that of London.

      There is a big problem, however, with political power being concentrated in London - with the result that media concentrates there with the result that lots of other things concentrate there due to being unaware of the potentially better locations elsewhere in the country.

      But if you had county assemblies then the logical thing that would follow is for county specific media to report on them - just like you have Scottish TV in Scotland. And that in turn would mean that, instead of one centralised hub of power and media you'd end up with dozens of dispersed hubs of power and media - with the result that everywhere in the country would benefit. And that includes London as Londoners might find that, without everyone viewing the city as the *only* place to be, the burden on transport and on housing would be greatly reduced.

      That, to me, sounds like a great way to bring the government of England into the 21st century.

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  2. Another problem with this: my home county, Northumberland, which was a Ceremonial County, has a population of 300000, almost all rural. This is much less than any US state. The next largest grouping possible, is north-east England- which, as you already mentioned, rejected its own assembly.

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    1. True, but if we look just across the channel at the Netherlands (another federal country) we see that it's smallest Province (the equivalent of a US state) has a population of just 356,000.

      As Northumberland has a population of 312,000 that's not much of a difference.

      Additionally, Northumberland traditionally included the county of Tyne and Wear so it would probably make sense to reincorporate those into Northumberland - especially as otherwise the traditional county town of Newcastle wouldn't actually be in the county itself.

      Reuniting Tyne and Wear with the rest of Northumberland would give it a population of about 1.5 million - which would quite neatly address the issue about it being too small otherwise.

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  3. The simple answer is to put the question of an English parliament to the English people in a referendum. Wales had its third referendum on its assembly last year while we English still await our first - as a nation.

    5 million Scots are permitted to keep 50 million English people hanging around for 2 years while they make their minds up about Scotland's separation, but we English are denied a referendum on self-determination because "England is ssooooo big". It's a weird sort of democracy that silences the voice of the majority. Never mind the destabilising influence of Scotland's hokey kokey stance on England's economy, only Scottish opinion matters.

    The second largest financial centre in the UK outside of London is Leeds. However, Scottish banking failure was rewarded by Scoto-phile Vince Cable locating the Green Investment Bank in Scotland for the sole purpose of bribing Scots to stay in the Union. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has his constituency in Leeds, but I guarantee placing the GIB in Leeds never crossed his mind, any more than it did the two Leeds Tory MPs I wrote to about it. "Wha' why?" was their combined response.

    Regionalisation had/has one purpose, to erase England from the map.It was started by the Tories and is continued by them through the back door with regional pay and benefits.

    Regions have the added role of masking how the English come bottom of the spending pile compared to the other nations comprising the UK. They enable Scotland and Wales to compare themselves to whatever region suits their argument best. However, it is now impossible for England to come top of the spending pile compared to any other country. It will never be permitted.

    If the United Kingdom can only survive by denying me and my fellow English compatriots equal democratic rights then the UK can toddle off to hell.

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    1. Yes, English devolution is long overdue - even though you seem to be forgetting the north east referendum on a regional assembly, you might disagree with the model of devolution proposed but it was certainly *an* option which was presented in a referendum.

      But the problems with an English Parliament would be no different from the problems we have at the moment with a UK parliament. What exactly do you think would change other than the issue of the West Lothian question? Power would still be centralised, London would continue to remain the focus of the country, rather than the development of the rest of England and all we'd then have is a new parliament, highly similar to the existing one, with another parliament above it that would cost a fortune and yet have very little to do at all.

      Regionalisation is, I'd agree, a bad idea. The regions of England are just artificial boundaries on maps which people don't relate to at all - with the exception of Greater London of course.

      But I don't see how that's an argument against devolution to the historical English counties, a return to the much more localised government that has been the norm in England for the bulk of its history and which is also based around the same shire system invented in England over a thousand years ago.

      Devolution shouldn't be just for its own sake, it should be for the sake of giving more power to local people, for the sake of breaking government down into more accountable units and for the sake of reversing the centralisation of power and resources that has seen most of England lose out. That's why I think that an English Parliament is a mostly pointless idea and, as regional assemblies are an idea which just attempt to create artificial identities out of thin air, the only logical option is to devolve power to the historical counties which already have identities which resonate with people and which would allow people across England to refocus government attention where they think it is needed rather than where Whitehall thinks it is needed.

      England is a country that has existed for over a thousand years. That identity will not be eroded by something like county devolution just like German identity has not been eroded by federalisation.

      I should also point out that, while Scotland does receive more funding per head than the UK average, Wales receives less per head than the UK average.

      If you really think that a slightly more accountable English Parliament is more preferable than much more accountable assemblies in every county then I'd humbly suggest that you might need to get some perspective.

      And, incidentally, if you are the one and the same as the Stephen Gash who was the head of Stop the Islamisation of Europe then I'd also like to add that you're a despicable, small minded, bigoted, xenophobic racist bastard of the type that demonstrates the very worst, rather than the very best, of England.

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    2. P.S. Regional pay plans have just been blocked - by Vince Cable.

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  4. Finally a sensible suggestion to the West Lothian question. Considering the West Midlands 'county' is almost as big as Wales, I can't see why it this issue is so difficult to comprehend. I agree with you that an English Parliament, in the same vein as the Scottish Parliament, would be largely negligible. No way would the UK Government create the role of an English First Minister who could rival the PM in the power stakes. Essentially we would have 2 Prime Ministers.

    They only other idea I can think of is amalgamating the current regions into 3 or 4 blocks to create, basically: North England, the English Midlands, East England, South England and maybe even West England. However, like you said, I don't think people have much affinity to regionalism in England.

    All I know is that the UK is in need of a major shake-up if it wants to carry on. I'm from Scotland and it even frustrates me. Why can't this country seem to understand basic local governance that most European/Western countries have used for centuries?

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  5. The answer is a federal system in a federal United Kingdom. It is odd to me to say England is too big to have a unitary parliament, regionalisation (however big or small, in whatever way it comes) is nothing but bad for the Kingdom of England. The most logical idea would be an English parliament handling national matters (health, education, industry, etc) and local "county assemblies" managing local affairs and economy. So, in itself, England models itself on a federal system; this is how much bigger countries have managed (and also managed to maintain a united nation). It protects the nation and identity of England and also the uniqueness of our counties and their specific needs. Also, the British government has spent too much time eroding the English identity/nationality, making it an ethnic attribute as opposed to a collective identity. We need an English parliament representative of all the population of England; One England for all! Though, I believe, until the British government is radically reformed or abolished (Scottish independence being the stepping stone for this) England and her people will never be allowed a democratic voice; hence why we pay prescription fee's, high education fee's, higher council tax, high water rates (compared to Scotland) and so forth compared to our "British" counterparts.

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I'm indebted to Birkdale Focus for the following choice of words:

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