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