In the run-up to the festive season, all three main London parties set out their stalls on English devolution. On the whole, they’re rather against it.
Labour were first, with a promise to devolve power to ‘city regions’ and ‘county regions’. Anything but region regions. These areas appear to correspond to those of the Local Enterprise Partnerships, business-led quangos that have never faced the electorate before and won’t be facing it in the future. Is Labour’s plan to hand big business control of our money on a plate and pretend it’s what we, the people, want? The lack of detail on governance arrangements could imply pretty much anything. What is clear is that powers will not be devolved to directly elected councils: if that was the plan, Labour would have said so.
Labour have seen in Scotland what happens if you devolve real power to substantial areas and they want no more of that. Having concluded that even the pseudo-regionalism of the Prescott zones constitutes too big a threat, they are now into ‘area-ism’, dividing England into clumps of counties. The Environment Agency’s new areas – it abolished its regions in favour of areas in April – could provide clues as to where Labour may be heading.
The Siamese twins followed on Tuesday last week, with a glowing end-of-term report they wrote themselves about how they’ve decentralised power. Can’t say we’ve noticed actually. Then appended to it are the respective party positions of the Tories and FibDems.
For the Tories, English devolution is primarily about strengthening the all-England dimension – devolution from the centre to the centre – through English votes for English laws. True to their feudal roots, they reject entirely the idea of regions in favour of local self-government, strictly limited and deferential, under the watchful, absolute authority of a Norman-style parliament supervising the children at play. As with Labour, their plans involve concentrating power as much as possible in the hands of celebrity mayors with the charisma to shut down any inconvenient debate. And, of course, they want to have another go at breaking the link between local identity and parliamentary constituencies. The paper makes no reference to Cornwall, the Cornish or national minority rights, but does mention all the other home nations by name.
A few phrases stand out. “There would be a presumption in favour of devolution, but checks in place would aim to ensure powers were not granted inappropriately.” Oh dear. The powers that Whitehall decides it’s ‘inappropriate’ to devolve are exactly the ones worth having. We have to build the political movement thatwill force these creatures to acknowledge that subsidiarity means we decide what it’s appropriate to centralise, not the other way round.
Then there’s local growth. The report launches straight into a discussion of how decentralisation can accelerate growth. Hold on. Let’s first decide whether growth is appropriate for our area, shall we? Not according to the London parties. EVERY initiative to regionalise power in England has been about the economy. Not ONE has been about democratic choice. In the 1940s we had Regional Boards for Industry. In the 1960s we had Regional Economic Planning Councils. In the 2000s we had Regional Development Agencies. All applying an answer to a question we never heard asked. Namely how the ‘provinces’ can best contribute to enriching the City of London / HM Treasury. Absolutely not how the regions can set their own agenda. Every time they try that, the regional institutions are abolished faster than you can say ‘distinctive sense of identity’.
According to the Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis, last week, “Localism means a choice over how the needs of communities are best met, not whether they are met.” Or even being allowed to say what they are. Lewis was responding to an adjournment debate initiated by Liam Fox, Tory MP for North Somerset, whose trenchant criticism of the Government and its Whitehall machine might surprise those who remember him being part of it just three years ago. Come April he’ll be telling everyone how breathtakingly wonderful it’s all been. Hansard records that his neighbour, the Tory MP for Weston-super-Mare, may have similar concerns but, being still on the Government payroll, is barred from voicing them. A jolly jape is this ghastly game of ‘Parliamentary representation’, where one’s adoring constituents are but meat to the procedural grinder.
All the parties continue to pick at the idea of a constitutional convention. Either as a way to come up with some workable fix (forget it) or as a way to send everyone to sleep. We’ve been telling everyone the most fundamental answer to the West Lothian question for decades now. Why keep asking it?
Of the three parties, the FibDems say the most encouraging things about regional devolution, quite pointlessly since they remain bound to work with one of two larger parties that hate the very idea.
The fact remains that all the countries of the United Kingdom are conquered countries. Scotland was (and still is) conquered with bribes. The others were all conquered by unimaginably violent means. Those who sit in London and fine-tune the unwritten constitution are all accessories after the fact. They are not our friends. They laugh at the aspiration to be free of London rule. And they seriously expect us to see the joke. Go on, pull the other one.