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The Northumbrian question and devo-max for England

By Jon Lansman

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 Carwyn 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.

This post first appeared in Jon Lansman’s blog Left Futures

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. You will get no more than wholehearted support and good will from Celtic unionist like me for your endeavours.

    In the English media – and indeed from the London politicians – we see a lot of very bad tempered and petulant threats and lies about Scotland’s national aspiration – but you never see that reciprocated the other way – at least not directed towards the English people. Britain, and soon to be just England, has been far too centralised for far too long for good governance to be possible.

    The Prescott offering was a joke, designed to fail, with too few powers on offer, and the whole thing being touted by a man that you would not dream of buying even a second hand car from!

    So good luck to you, to Cornwall and to Wessex – so far the only parts of England I am aware of that have declared themselves on this, in your quest for democracy.

    February 6, 2012
  2. My god! What have you done to Cornwall in that map you use? You know those artificial government zones depicted on your map have little connexion with any of historic regions of what is today England. In fact those regions where drawn up in the second world war. Try this map for a closer approximation:

    July 28, 2012
    • I’m not sure what map you are referring to; we don’t have an illustration here. But greetings anyway!

      July 28, 2012
      • There is a map at the top of this blog post.

        July 30, 2012
    • Yorkshire Nige #

      I’m with you again on that one Fulup! The dipiction of Yorkshire on your web link is much more accurate than that shown here. For example, the Middlesbrough/Redcar area is Yorkshire, not Northumbria as this suggests whilst over to the west parts of Yorkshire are included with Lancashire of all places! Otherwise, this article puts across some very good points. I would take issue with the comment by S Jones above however as the movement for Yorkshire devolution is a very active and the recent City Deal of devolved power to Leeds and Sheffield shows that it is already well established. As you know, I am aware of great efforts for a devolved Kernow but I cannot say that I have heard of much devolution activity from Wessex?

      July 30, 2012
      • Try ‘Wessex Regionalists’ on Wikipedia

        August 14, 2012

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