Where now for English devolution?

I’m writing this before we know the result of Scotland’s referendum although it’s already clear which direction it’s heading.  In England at least there is now lots of discussion as to what the future will be for government across the United Kingdom and that will continue no matter what the outcome, but it’s a debate that was well overdue.   As another caveat, I’m also writing this late at night as the first political post on my blog for a while and I’ve got out out of practice so it may be more of a ramble than I’d want…

I’ve found the argument over the last minute ‘bribe’ to Scottish voters of extra devolution a little mystifying.  After all, I’m a member of a political party that has long believed in ‘Devo-Max’ and so I take the view that devolving as much as you can to each country in the Union is the right thing to do.  But despite that, I am now more unsure than I’ve ever been on how that should manifest itself within England.

I joined the Liberal Democrats back in 1995 and at that time the party had a very clear policy – English regional parliaments.  As a proud Yorkshireman (yes, I know the purists out there will say that as I wasn’t born here then I’m not, but I grew up here and so I think that counts) I loved the idea of my bit of England taking power away from Westminster and it being held by people who genuinely understood this part of the country.  For all that Sheffield and Arkengarthdale are very different; there is a certain feeling of something in common as a result of being in the same county.  That however is not something I know exists for many other regions.  Let’s take East of England as an example – Cromer and Watford?

But despite this enthusiasm and I suppose patriotism, I’ve wavered.  Not about devolution, but the form it should take.

I’ve never been a fan of an English Parliament, but for me it’s the minimum.  You can’t carry on devolving to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, without making a decision on how England rules itself when parliamentary powers become so lopsided.  As a result, a blogpost I wrote seven years ago gave the impression that I was an English Parliament fan, but actually I was settling for it, rather than desiring it.  My criticism still stands, which is that having and English Parliament doesn’t feel any closer to me than a UK Parliament, and I think some people in England, especially the North of England feel perhaps more affinity in outlook to Scotland and Wales, than they do to people in the South East.  It’s also the case that people in England are becoming more resentful of the influence and income that Scotland gets from Westminster (whether that’s fair or not), and even more so since the agreement between the three UK-wide parties agreed on more powers for Scotland.

Since I wrote this post however, the current government has abolished Regional Development Agencies and brought in City Regions and Local Enterprise Partnerships.  These started to do what I’ve always wanted and genuinely give power to local areas to set their own priorities on economic development but on a very limited basis, with a pretty poor democratic mandate but at least involving local politicians but with powers that had to be given generously by a beneficent government in Westminster.  That’s the sort of thing that Labour would be proud of but was instead brought in by a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.  But as someone who is also proud of his home city of Sheffield I appreciate the benefits.  Sheffield’s economy is bound up with neighbouring local authorities such as Chesterfield and Bassetlaw, which are in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire respectively, and places such as High Peak where the East of the district looks towards Sheffield and the West looks towards Manchester, but neither half looks South towards the rest of the East Midlands.  Whilst the traditional regions pull at the heart, the newer regions make more economic sense in many cases and not just my own more extreme example, and if anything I feel they aren’t ambitious enough in what they want to achieve.

Of course devolution isn’t just about economics, it’s about far far more.  After all, to take one of the big issues, the NHS is entirely devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, but can you really run it on a ‘city region’ level in England?  Not really.  City Regions also ignore rural areas and treat them as appendages of urban areas.  Increasingly, in many urban/rural fringes that’s what they are, but only where they border on to a major city.  And, although well-established city regions such as Greater Manchester have fringe areas that generally accept their situation, places like Doncaster slightly resent being lumped in as part of a Sheffield City Region.

So where does that leave things?  I honestly can’t answer that.  My heart says regional assemblies.  My head says City Regions (and the rural equivalents).  There’s also the option of giving more powers to counties, but then they don’t make sense everywhere either.  My sense of realism suggests an English Parliament for now, but it feels no closer than Westminster and how does that work if its MPs are essentially serving in two parliaments (UK and English) with potentially different political control and certainly different political balance in the two.

My dilemma however gives a sense of the battle ahead.  Much has been said about how the impressive turnout in the Scottish Independence Referendum shows that people are suddenly engaged and that there’s a desire for change as a result, even amongst those who voted No.  But, of course if you ask a Lib Dem like me what the future structure of the UK should be, you’ll get a very different answer (and quite a complicated answer) from what a UKIP supporter would say.  UKIP are also the party that are showing political momentum at the moment and seen as the ‘radicals’ shaking up politics, however laughable that is for those of us in the centre or the left.  It’s a sign that we shouldn’t assume that a desire for change is the same as people wanting the same thing.  And that’s where the problem lies, and where the massive arguments are going to come over the months ahead.  And it’s why I’m also not convinced that this referendum will really take advantage of a desire for change, as no one agrees on what change should be.  Conservatives and UKIP may like an English Parliament, Labour and the Lib Dems will be all over the place.  The general voter, haven’t even thought about it and the public have rejected devolved English assemblies already.