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
- Economic development
- Education and training
- Fire and rescue services and promotion of fire safety
- Health and health services
- Highways and transport
- Local government
- Public administration
- Social welfare
- Sport and recreation
- Town and country planning
- Water and flood defence
- Welsh language