A letter in the Bristol Evening Post this week berated the ‘South West’ zone’s MEPs for not stemming the flow of Bristol jobs across the Severn. The problem is real enough, as south Wales has long benefited from regional development money in one shape or another. But to define the problem as being about how well Bristol’s interests are being defended in Brussels, or London for that matter, is 15 years out of date. Cardiff is home to the Welsh Assembly, a body with the power to change laws, make decisions and direct funding, a body with no Bristol equivalent. Local politicians in Cardiff can walk to where the national politicians are and sit down with them for a chat. Bristol’s have to travel cap-in-hand to London.
Bristol can have parity with Cardiff only once it becomes willing to re-think its own identity and loyalties. Meanwhile, it remains the victim of those varied strategies employed by the London regime to persuade it not to attempt any such thing.
The first of these is the anti-regionalist strand of localism. The idea that under-powered, under-funded local councils can get together and, if they can take their minds off bus shelters and litter bins for five minutes, agree on strategic priorities. Not a hope, compared to what the Welsh Assembly can do for its communities west of the Severn. How about a Boris for Bristol then? Another dead end. The City of Bristol, which is not even the whole of the urban area, has a population roughly one-seventh that of Wales, roughly a twentieth that of London. Wessex, we need to remind you, is bigger than either. Cardiff doesn’t have a Boris and there are no plans to impose one, nor bribe/threaten voters into ‘choosing’ to have one, because one simply isn’t needed. Cardiff hosts something much more useful.
The second diversion is nationalism. National identity is what devolution is supposed to be recognising, with Cornwall ignored and England assigned its traditionally silent role of wearer of the magic cloak of Britishness. It’s a convenient wheeze but it doesn’t work. And not just because there are nations left without devolution (Cornwall and most of England) and two areas with devolution that aren’t nations (London and Northern Ireland).
Geographers have been quick to point out that with the exception of London – essentially an issue of metropolis management stretching back centuries – audible demand for devolution has come from the peripheries. That’s true of Ireland in the 19th century, Scotland and Wales in the 20th and perhaps of Cornwall and Northumbria in the early 21st. National identity is not the sole determinant of devolution that nationalists insist it to be.
Administrators have been equally quick to point out that Scotland and Wales, whatever nationalists may call them, are regional in scale, and the practical problems they now handle for themselves exist at the same sort of scale within England. They also exist in most large European states, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the difference being that none of those has any hang-ups about regional government.
Real regional power is opposed mainly by English nationalists, who want to keep it all to themselves. Their contributions online and in the press often try to convince us that England won’t be a smaller Britain, that somehow an English Parliament would be distinguishable in its outlook and policies from what we have endured under Westminster. But on most occasions during the 20th century the result of an English General Election would not have differed from the actual outcome of a British General Election, except in the size of majority. We mightn’t even have been spared Scots at the top, since we know they can stand, successfully, for English seats.
An English Parliament would change nothing. Would it speak with one voice for England? Of course not: England is far too diverse to be expressed fairly by a single voice, though that won’t stop some from trying, denouncing BBC moves to Cardiff and Glasgow while slyly adding Salford to that list. We know very well the complaints of the Scots and the Welsh that Westminster, obsessed with its own imperial dreams, has too often left them to rot. Without a doubt, an English Parliament would do the same to Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex unless they have devolved parliaments of their own to ensure that it cannot.
The third false hope is that devolution will simply go away. It won’t, and Wessex must live with the consequences of the existing arrangements until it demands and achieves parity. Ron Davies, the former Welsh Secretary, pointed out that devolution is a process, not an event. The Welsh Assembly will carry on trying out the powers it has acquired. And that will mean job losses in Bristol.
Bristol is the home of certain ‘Anglo-Welsh’ functions like the Environment Agency and the Planning Inspectorate. They are based in Bristol because it’s the largest city between Cardiff and London and in pre-devolution times that suited a civil service that was formally united but liked to create the impression that it respected national differences. (Often, the same circular would go out from both ministers, but on different letterheads.) Post-devolution, that unity has gone and increasingly the Welsh Assembly is pursuing its own path. The point is now approaching when it sees no further purpose in joint institutions. That will mean more than just a few top jobs re-locating to Cardiff. It could mean many more re-locating to London as the central State retracts, with consequences not just for public sector office jobs but for those in academia, consultancies and other businesses reliant on such institutions for work. Bristol may be sitting atop a rubber band about to snap. Bristolians, if they’ve become accustomed to their city hosting a governmental role, will need to explore the possibility of a Wessex government being the means to maintain it in a post-British future.