Monday, 2 November 2009

More constitutional introspection

Scottish nationalist (with a small 'n') Gerry Hassan has another interesting article on England in his blog, and it seems to me to be one of the best analyses of the position that I have seen in a while. Whether he belongs to the party which would require "nationalist" to have a capital 'n' I don't know, but sometimes things are best done looking in from the outside, and this is a case in point.

I think the article speaks for itself but I would just make two points on it. First, I don't think that regional government within England is necessarily as he supposes a dead duck from the point of view of whether people in England would be willing to vote in favour of it (although it may well be a dead duck because of our political class at Westminster). The Prescott regional proposals offered virtually no meaningful devolution at all. A few highways functions would have moved from the government offices for the regions, but in the main what few functions the regional assemblies would have had (mainly transport and planning functions) came by lifting them from the county councils. It was pretend-devolution, and its overwhelming rejection in the North East region in 2004 resulted largely from the fact that local people saw through it. The other problem with the current regions is that they are formed from lines drawn on a map by civil servants with a view to making the numbers work out, rather than to reflect local identities or aspirations.

I may be unduly influenced by the fact that genuine regional government is my favoured solution (from that point of view I declare an interest), but I think that if a regional parliament and government were offered to three regions in England, namely the North, the Midlands and the South, with people having an opportunity to indicate which region they think they are in, and with powers at least as great as those available to the Welsh Assembly and government, I think there could well be support amongst the public at large. The sticking point in all this is the politicians. Try as they might (and they try very little), they are simply unwilling to give up power. Career Westminster politicians and Whitehall civil servants are just not willing to divest themselves of control over health, education, the justice system, local government, planning and the like in England (all devolved in Scotland and, apart from the justice system, in Wales and Northern Ireland also), and so leave themselves only with macro economics, immigration, the benefits system and foreign affairs as toys to play with.

Secondly, he suggests one tipping point for sentiment in England may arise if the next general election were to result in a hung Parliament with a UK government (say a Lib-Lab coalition) not formed of the party having a majority in England (the Tories), which would result in most contentious laws in England on devolved matters in effect being passed by virtue only of the votes of members outside England. I don't think in practice this is going to happen. I think by far the most likely outcome is that the Tories will have a working majority and will pass laws (possibly in conjunction with legislation to give effect to the Calman Commission recommendations) implementing Ken Clark's proposed solution to the West Lothian question.

I think the tipping point will happen further down the line. Let's say in an election in 5 or 10 years' time, we have a small Labour majority, or Lib-Lab coalition, forming a UK government but with a Tory majority in England. The temptation for a latter-day Gordon Brown to dismantle any provision for those in England introduced earlier by the Tories in order to get through his or her legislative programme so as to avoid having to reach compromises on devolved matters with a Tory opposition having a majority in England may prove irresistible. Whether the UK constitution could survive this strain on it is a matter for speculation; but I have little doubt that someone like Ed Balls would not let that dissuade him. Power easily goes to people's heads, and to some more than others.

Some may think I am unduly pessimistic about our political class. I hope that is true, but I doubt it (I remain even more shocked by the goings-on in 10 Downing Street revealed by the Damian McBride affair than I am by the Commons' expenses scandal, which has been well known for some time). Politicians are just like everyone else, with the same vices and virtues. An unwillingness to give up power which has been hard gained is one commonly shared human vice. For that reason I doubt that much will come of ventures such as Power 2010, chaired by Helena Kennedy who is a working peer in the House of Lords taking the Labour whip.

If one has to be a realist and therefore must abandon ideas of meaningful regional devolution in England, as I suppose one must do (and no regional devolution is certainly better than pretend regional devolution), we are therefore left with Gerry Hassan's thesis of there being a need to forge some form of English identity with progressive values. Whatever the outcome of all this, I suspect that in 20 or 30 years' time, Vernon Bogdanor's defence of the status quo will be looked on as laughable.

Forever young

I went to a concert last night which featured all of Focus, the Strawbs and Wishbone Ash. All were good, but Focus remained the most innovative with Thijs van Leer on Hammond (what bands still play a Hammond organ?) - and after seeing Pierre van der Linden I now know that I want to be a drummer when I grow up.

It is a reminder that like it or not (and many don't), those born in the late 40s and the 50s still set the agenda for much in the social, political and cultural scene. Isn't our likely next Prime Minister, David Cameron, a timid and air-brushed version of what we might have been heard 20 years ago, albeit still trapped by the right wing of his own party into insipid ineffectiveness?

But what of young people in Britain today? Very often marginalised, victimised and disposable. The UK was recently criticised by the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child for its retrogressive (and ultimately self-defeating) approach to the young, and in particular in relation to the demonisation of teenagers. Treat young people as criminals and they will become criminals: yes, binge drinking by teenagers is problematic, but it is not answered by forever bringing in new criminal sanctions. Much of the blame probably lies in the anti-risk culture that has developed, which leaves the young deprived of all meaningful energetic interaction with the world around them, and results in the only release remaining to them being the creation of mayhem on Friday and Saturday nights when they reach an age to tell their elders to get lost. Policies need to be developed not to deprive the young of all creative physical and other impulses, but to channel them into socially acceptable forms free of the excessive regulation encouraged by well intended but socially destructive one-issue pressure groups. Perhaps we also have to be mature enough to realise that in life bad things sometimes happen, to the young as well as to the old, and it doesn't always mean that someone is to blame: but the unfortunate truth may be that we are some way from that.

Maybe a mature public debate is required about the role of risk in society, and how the balance is to be struck between attempts to eliminate all risk on the one hand (it can't be done, and were all risk to be eliminated then life would not be worth living), and the inevitable accidents and misfortunes which are going to happen on the other hand. Perhaps the judiciary need to be involved in this, with their propensity when faced with a hard case to find negligence in any situation.

And surely the use by some Councils and others of so-called "Mosquitos" - devices which emit unpleasantly loud high-pitched sound audible only to those under about 20 in order to drive them from city centres - comprises the most gross and improper interference with the human rights of the young? I challenge any reader and ask them, if your local authority had tried to oust you from town centres with these kind of techniques when you were in your teens, how would you have reacted? If your local council or other local organisations have installed them, why not start a local campaign against this disgraceful practice; all the better if some public spirited individual with the money to spare could combine this with the bringing of proceedings for public nuisance or judicial review against the bodies concerned. It might well lose, but the publicity might be worth the price, and it could just win.

David Cameron should get back to hugging a hoodie, not as a gimmick but by way of starting public debate on how the opportunities and challenges necessary for the healthy development of young people into productive adults is to be accomplished. That will mean listening and thinking, and admitting that it will be difficult to find the correct answer, and not marching into office with an "I'll fix it" attitude. Probably that is more than we can expect from any politician, but just as we cannot live without risk, so we cannot live without hope.