Autonomy for the English Regions?

What about England? As the Scottish debate rumbles on, the discussion of constitutional reformists south of the border seems the exclusive territory of the increasingly shrill Euroskeptics whose ambition extends no further than sailing HMS Britannia as far away from Europe as possible.

Those who wish to repatriate powers to London would do well to realise the extent to which London has abandoned the rest of Britain. The ‘London’ in question, of course, is not the city as a whole, where poverty and alienation are often as bad as anywhere in the British Isles. Instead there is an even smaller London, a global city-state of high finance which happens to be located in the British Isles.

The crisis of 2008, from which we are still struggling to recover, was caused by an economy skewed towards casino finance in the City of London. Yet since that collapse, it is London – as well as the wealthiest amongst us – who are benefitting even in the shadow of the crisis they created. When the Greek economy collapsed, wealthy Greeks poured capital into the London property market, helping to sustain a 15% rise in property values since the financial crisis of 2008. Shockingly, the number of millionaires globally has increased at the same time as a generation across Europe go jobless.

From 2007 to 2011, London’s economy outperformed the rest of the UK in terms of productivity, with the South of England and Scotland coming in behind. The English regions lagged behind significantly. Some would argue that London’s status as Britain’s economic powerhouse merits continued support for the city – indeed, Boris Johnson has argued that “a pound spent in Croydon is of far more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde”. This is prescribing the cause of the illness as it’s cure. The truth is, though, that viewed from the perspective of the Londoner, Strathclyde is in irrelevance – as is Newcastle, Yorkshire, and most everything north of the M25.

It is no coincidence that Britain’s concentration of wealth mirrors it’s concentration of political power. It is hard to imagine a democratic country more centralised than the UK. The fringe nations of Britain, at least, have devolution, but this is new. It took generations of trying for Scotland to achieve it’s own Parliament, and Holyrood is still a teething infant in constitutional terms. Wales and Northern Ireland’s democratic development lag even further behind. But what of England? Devolution there, in the form of the London Assembly, exists only in the place that needs it least.

The English regions suffer due to neglect. In transport spending alone, each Londoner receives £2600 per head – some 520 times the measly £5 per head spent in the North East. In a self-perpetuating cycle, the South is rewarded for productivity with further investment, with tens of billions to be spent on a High Speed Rail line which will barely extend outside of London and a further runway to be built for Heathrow. The British economy is London.

Compare this with Germany, Europe’s most successful economy, where a strong layer of regional government is an essential part of the state. Or compare it with the Scandinavian countries, with the highest standards of living in the world, where localism is the norm.

Many of the arguments used in favour of an independent Scotland could equally apply to the English regions. Many in the North of England would argue that they reject Conservatism as vehemently as Scotland, and yet still receive a government they didn’t vote for – but without the cushion of a devolved Parliament. The distinction is that Scotland has retained many of the institutions of nationhood, such as an independent legal system, since Union. The reconvened Scottish Parliament simply transferred powers which were already administered separately into a democratic body in Scotland. The option to simply parachute out of the Westminster system is not available to all parts of the UK. But the option does exist for the English regions to follow the devolutionary path.

Elected regional assemblies in England were briefly considered following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies. Three referendums were planned in 2004, but the polls in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber were cancelled following the overwhelming defeat of the proposals in the North East. Some 78% voted against the plans for an elected assembly based in Newcastle, a proposal which lacked serious powers and which raised fears over tax rises.

Since that defeat, public support for regional devolution seems to have declined, which – according to the British Social Attitudes Survey – peaked at 26% in 2003 and has since fallen to 12% in 2011. Over the same time, support for an English Parliament has increased from 18% to 25%. A devolved English Parliament, supported by fringe groups such as the English Democrats and the Campaign For An English Parliament, offers one solution to the West Lothian Question but fails to tackle the much larger questions of centralisation and uneven economic development. A federal England provides an answer.

As always, there seems to be no appetite for radical reform emanating from the Westminster establishment, and the lack of the civic consensus which delivered devolution for Scotland makes it doubtful that this will change. The one area with limited appetite for devolution is Cornwall, where the Campaign for a Cornish Assembly claim to have collected 50,000 signatures out of a population of around 500,000. Yet even this modest support is driven at least partially by a ‘non-English’ identity that offers no possibility for replication elsewhere in England.

The Scottish independence referendum, and to a lesser degree the debate around EU membership, offers at least the possibility that the English will reevaluate their governance. A recent report produced on behalf of the Association of North East Councils argues that increased Scottish autonomy can be seen as an opportunity, and that the North of England can benefit from an economically strong Scotland. This applies, of course, both ways. The report highlights that “the major divergence in resources, capacity and economic performance is not between the north of England and Scotland. Rather, it is the divergence between the rest of the UK and the Greater South-East, which is pulling away in economic terms from the rest of the country.”

There is no short route to English devolution, but the argument is there to be won. With huge public distrust for the Westminster classes, and the lack of economic revival outside of London, a well considered federal settlement could find favour if a strong voice was to make the case. Regardless of the popularity, England needs it.

Dan Paris
National Collective


There are 17 comments

  1. English Commonwealth

    An emasculated England broken up into regions would suit Scotland but wouldn’t be much use to the English.

    1. YDM

      You talk about ‘England’ and ‘the English’ as though you are referring to a country occupied by one people having the same heritage, culture, standard of life, ideology etc. etc. That ‘England’ just does not exist! Even the idea that all parts of England identify with Anglo-Saxon roots is a myth, ie, Yorkshire (Jorvikskyr) has Danish roots whilst Cornwall (Kernow) has Brythonic. Is England ‘one nation’ when year after year London and the Sout-East receive more government spending per capita than Yorkshire and the north? Is England one nation when London can brand events such as Tour de France Grand Depart 2007 and the Olympics 2012 as ‘London’ events but Yorkshire cannot brand Tour de France Grand Depart 2014 as a ‘Yorkshire’ event? I could go on but I think that’s enough to make the point that England already is broken down into regions and one of them, London, already has devolved government. There is no justification for denying the rest of them the same opportunity to self governance through devolution.

  2. Wyrdtimes

    “…fails to tackle the much larger questions of centralisation and uneven economic development”

    The centralisation issue can be solved by devolving power to the English shire system. Unlike the enforced EU/UK regions the English shires are recognised, have existing political infrastructure and they are even loved.

    “uneven economic development” should be tackled by a re-established English parliament working in the English interest.

  3. Slicer

    Of course it’s no surprise that Scots want England broken up into little pieces. Scottish nationalists seem to be quite obsessed with England being broken up into regions it’s a common talking point among them, which is strange because they should only be concerned with Scotland. If England had it’s own government and political parties instead of a UK government and political parties that have to appease insecure, sensitive Scots that would go along way to helping all of England, add in the fact if England didn’t have to subsidise Wales and Northern Ireland that would be even better. As for the North East, 20% of taxes raised in London is redistributed to the North East, with their population of 1.6 million they are hardly being short changed, it is foolish to compare transport spending in London with the North East.

    1. Wayne Brown

      I have never heard anybody say they want any part of the UK ‘broken up into little pieces’.

      And there’s a big difference between saying you want something to happen elsewhere, and saying you think it might be a good idea for the people there to take up. After we vote yes next year the people of the rUK can make their own decisions (within the context of international relations) just as Scotland will.

      We are no more sensitive or insecure in Scotland than in other parts of the UK.

      If the people of England want an English parliament, all they have to do is vote for it.

      You have to careful with your subsidy argument given the number of ways that London and the SE have been subsidised over the years (you could start with the London Allowance, it’s been on the go since 1920, average £4000 in 2007.)

      It is not foolish to compare spending on anything in two regions if the figure is per head, as in the article.

      1. th43


        We lose less than 10% of the UK’s population/resources and what’s left is the rump?

        This level of arrogance outdoes the fabled Times headline (didn’t exist, but was intended to illustrate British Imperial attitudes)…
        “Fog on Channel, Continent Isolated”

        1. Wayne Brown

          I thought the r stood for rest, which is what the rest will be after Scotland becomes independent – but I’m sure they’ll come up with a more appropriate name by and by.

          As for your comment below on devolution for other areas of the rUK, that’s up to them – but there’s nothing to stop us here in Scotland having an opinion on the matter. For what it’s worth, I think that Scottish independence could be good for the North of England but whether or not that is what transpires is impossible to predict.

          1. th43

            Wayne if you really thought “r” meant “rest”, then fair enough, although I’ve seen it written many times elsewhere and when it’s been spelled out, it was always “rump”.

            I agree that the north will benefit from Scottish independence, but England doesn’t have to be balkanised for that to happen. The whole of England would benefit without the need to break it up.

          2. Wayne Brown

            Hi th43

            That’s twice now, that I have posted comments on NC that have been initially misconstrued – then, when I clarify my thinking/abbreviations, get a good,you’re not as bad as I thought you were, response. Excellent, that’s conversation.

            Single letters are so open ended.

            r – remainder ( )

            redolent, righteous, redeemed, regarded, resumed, reaffirmed, resourceful, renowned – – – –

            But most importantly, and Regardless of all my havers, have fun with your politics.

  4. th43

    Labour’s devolution plan was never in the spirit of localism. This policy was based upon the belief that Labour would have a more or less guaranteed mandate to rule Scotland/Wales from Edinburgh/Cardiff indefinitely. The Tories would never get in power at Holyrood and the nationalists would lose support by most Scots (who cared) being placated by devolution.

    It was a disaster. Labour lost control of both and now Scotland may be lost forever!

    Don’t repeat this nonsense with the North.

    Those of us who come from there don’t want it and regionalism has been soundly
    rejected, so why won’t anyone listen?

  5. cornubian

    “claim to have collected 50,000 signatures”

    Are you suggesting that it might not be true? The petition was handed into Tony Blair. You could ask him for a copy.

    “limited appetite for devolution” “50,000 signatures out of a population of around 500,000”

    That makes 10% of our population. What percentage have similar petitions in Scotland or Wales achieved?

  6. marhek

    We non-English and pre-English Cornish don’t claim to have collected a 50,000 word petition for a Cornish Assembly. We did so. It came within the parameters that John Prescott assured us would merit further discussion, progress and a referendum. Once in receipt of the petition, he went back on his word. He did nothing. Except to try imposing an Assembly on the North-East who didn’t want it. But, at least they got a referendum to formally reject. We did not. Not for the Assembly we wanted, nor for the imposed South-West Regional Assembly we didn’t want.

  7. pawl dunbar

    The fifty thousand signatures calling for a Cornish assembly with at least the same powers as the Scottish Parliament was collected by a few street activists in a few months.

    The signatures, names and addresses were all scrupulously checked against the electoral rolls and the whole exercise was carried out openly and with complete transparency. When handed in to Tony Blair, of the Red Rose of England Conservative and Unionist Party and the then Prime Minister, it was ignored totally.

    The Labour Party is as much unionist as the Tories.

    The population of Cornwall is about half a million – slightly larger than Luxembourg, and Cornwall’s area is also larger than Luxembourg… we have a coastline… we have ports… which Luxembourg lacks.

    So the petition contains the signatures of 10% of Cornwall’s population, collected on the streets in a few months by a handful of activists… a significant show of support.

    Lead the way to independence, Scotland – the people of Cornwall and Wales are behind you!

  8. pawl dunbar

    Those who claim that England subsidises Scotland – and for that matter Wales and Cornwall – either have no understanding of economics or prefer to ignore the facts.

    Activists of the English political parties – particularly the Conservatives/BNP/UKIP – are even more extreme.

    They consistently demonstrate no understanding of economics, they clearly have no wish to understand economics, and even if they did would lie through their teeth in favour of English domination.

    They can often be identified on threads like these by the flags they incorporate into their avatars.

  9. excell5

    I cannot believe the paranoia of many of the responses to this well-argued article. It homes in on the overweaning position of the City of London – quite rightly described as a global city-state, a new Venice as it were. The City of London (mostly foreign-owned) is ploughing its own furrow to the detriment of most of the population of England. We desperately need to grab power back for the English population and that means huge change has to happen on two levels: 1. Move the house of commons to neutral territory eg Nottingham, Leeds, Peterborough. 2. “Local” government. Re-structure it radically. We need regions at the top, and districts+cities+unitaries+boroughs below. Only 2 layers of government. Then put some real muscle into these two layers. They should take over most of what is currently purported to be done by the centre. Remove county councils (except where the county has already been made into a unitary authority eg Northumberland, County Durham, Gloucestershire etc). The new regions should be similar to the 9 existing EU regions but tuned somewhat. Hopefully Scotland will vote for independence – that will create the space for England to think about how to govern itself.

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