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.


Anonymous said...

The 'sticking point' in regional devolution is the people of England. Why should England, which has been a nation since the 9th century be subdivided in any grand British plan? The English, like any other nation, are entitled to a political existence if that is what they want. No-one has asked them, despite opinion polls showing over 60% support. Once the people of England have their own parliament, then that Parliament can decide the best plan for decentralised govt, whether in nine region, or three regions or in counties. (Giving the counties back the local democracy they once had would be a good start.)

Home Rule for England said...

More power to the 'English regions' proposed by you TWV would give most sensible English people nightmares.
Lets take the NHS. Suppose we had free prescriptions in one 'English region' but they were fully charged in another. Do you really think that would be acceptable?
We have seen the problems associated with Welsh people travelling to England for treatment. Do we really want that multiplied by 9 in England?
9 different education ministers all doing different things? Free university education in one region not in another etc. etc.
It's a nonsense. It would lead to massive duplication and inequality.
Unless of course you want one region to subsidise another?

Stephen Gash said...

The only reason England is to be abolished and replaced by regions is because we are in a Union with Scotland, which an increasing number of English people don't want to be in, and because we are in the European Union, which the vast majority of English people definitely do not want to be in.

However, polls show a majority of English people want an English Parliament. Evidence indisputable tells us that English people identify most closely with their home counties, hence the re-emergence of Rutland.

Evidence also irrefutably shows that regionalists are undemocratic and Anglophobic.

The honest approach to UK regions would have been to abolish the nations and to construct regions that would have crossed the borders. Undeniably the Scots would have been in revolt at losing their country. However, we English are supposed to put up with it. Well, we won't.

Get over it.

Withering Vine said...


No, 3 different education ministers, on my proposal.

On prescriptions, yes, each of the 3 regions could have different policies. That is the whole purpose of devolved decision making - different parts of the UK could choose different social priorities. You are obviously an Ed Balls fan - your argument is the same one as he would employ for his own brand of directive centralism.

On subsidies, different parts of the UK (including different parts of England) already subsidise other parts. Unless each of the 3 regions were given fiscal autonomy (which is not my proposal) then there would be nothing new in that.

Actually, your comments about prescriptions reminds me of some of the silly bleats which emanate from the Campaign for an English Parliament. There is a perfectly respectable argument for an English Parliament (which I happen not to agree with). There are also arguments against the Barnett formula (which I happen to agree with) and about how the revenue cake is divided up within the UK, which the CEP also seem to have got themselves aligned with. But every pound the Scottish government spends on subsidising prescriptions is a pound they are not spending on something else. The CEP would do better sticking to their purpose, which is to lobby for an English Parliament. (And if your underlying point is a different one, namely a grudge about the amount of money travelling north of the border, by virtue of North sea oil taxation Scotland is approximately fiscally neutral at present. A lot more net revenue flows to Wales and Northern Ireland than does to Scotland.

Withering Vine said...

Stephen (Gash):

What is this evidence which "irrefutably shows that regionalists are undemocratic and Anglophobic"?

Neither of us know how people in England would react given a choice between doing nothing, having an English Parliament or having three regional Parliaments. For example, were devolution offered to the north of England with similar powers and responsibilities to those of the Welsh government and assembly then they might well prefer that to an English Parliament. We just don't know. Were it to happen then it would require approval in a referendum so there is no question of people in England having to "put up with it", and I would have no problem at all with the choice of an English Parliament being offered as an alternative as part of the same referendum.

As I say in my article, we are not likely to find out about how people would react to this choice, as career Westminster politicians are just as opposed to genuine regional devolution as you are.

Stephen Gash said...

The irrefutable evidence for English people reviling the regions comes from every single poll held.

Regions are perisitently the most unpopular option with merely 9 - 16% of people supporting them. However, 60+% of people want an English Parliament. One poll showed only 41% but this is just one in a series of polls held since 1999.

Regionalists are undemocratic because they refuse to hold referenda for the English. Again this is undeniable, otherwise we would have had them.

Withering Vine said...

Steven (Gash):

You are piling one non-sequitur onto another. For what you say to make sense at all (evidence "irrefutably shows that regionalists are undemocratic and Anglophobic" because "they refuse to hold referenda for the English") it would have to be the case (a) that "regionalists" are taking decisions on referenda, (b) that they have decided not to "hold referenda for the English" (presumably you are thinking here of one about an English Parliament), (c) they have done so because they want regional government instead of an English Parliament, and (d) that this indicates a state of phobia.

Given that any effective form of regional government for England has never been intended by any of the mainstream political class (and why should there be - turkeys don't vote for Christmas), and there has never been a referendum on regional government (the 2004 referendum did not involve a proposal for substantive regional government, which is one reason why it failed), points (a) to (c) fail. Even if the facts were in your favour on this, which they are not, it does not follow that the Westminster politicians are phobic about England. It is far more likely that they like the attractions of centralist power, and what we now know to have been the lucrative prizes available to those who play the game.

I am not going to get involved in exchanging selective poll data, much of which contradicts, but I reiterate that people in England have never been offered, in polls or otherwise, effective regional government as a choice. I would myself vote against any re-emergence of the Prescott proposals. That does not mean I am opposed to regional government.

Stephen Gash said...

The fact is, whether you want to get into polls or not is, the English want an English Parliament, they don't have one. They don't want England to be bust up into regions, but they have regional grand committees.
Not only have we not been offered a referendum on an English Parliament, we have not been offered a referendum on regionalisation in any form. The one in the spurious north east region has been the only one.

Anglophobia can be seen in the various comments made over the years.

John Prescott, Welsh, "There is no such nationality as English".

Robin Cook, Scot, "England is not a nation, it is just a collection of regions".

Charles Kennedy, Scot, "South of the border regionalisation is moving at such a pace, it is bringing into question the very idea of England itself".

Screw the regions and screw the United Kingdom. Above all screw our so-called fellow Brits.

Home Rule for England said...

3 education Ministers!! Tell me you are joking please. How much will all that cost?
Three 'parallel' education systems in England alone! What happens if one decides to get rid of A levels and two decide to keep them. How do universities/ employers make selection decisions?
What about local taxation? Local income tax in one region, council tax in another etc. etc.
the list is endless WT
Yur ideas are impractical nonsense, unless of course you want the English regions to be as separate as England and Scotland are now! ie. England ceases to exist politically!