War in Syria: The most difficult of decisions

“The decision every politician dreads is whether or not to send brave servicemen and women into military action in defence of our country” is how Tim Farron’s email to Liberal Democrat members last night started and I truly understand that. And this war is perhaps the hardest of all.

When the UK has gone to war over the last few decades it has usually been clear to me what we should do. The Gulf War – Yes, War in Iraq – No, Bosnia – Yes. But whether we should bomb IS in Syria is incredibly hard and one on which I really don’t know the right answer. I use the abbreviation IS as it’s how they’re best known, but I don’t like to use the full name as it’s an abomination to equate what they do with Islam.

Unusually for me, I understand the desire for revenge. It’s unseemly and not something I’m proud of but when an organisation such as IS unleashes the sort of attacks they have done recently in France, Lebanon and Mali and to individuals who have been there on charity work, then I sympathise with the wish to take some action. But I also know that it isn’t the way to reach a long-term solution.

My instinct is usually for negotiation and international diplomacy, but that just isn’t going to be possible in this case. I would also want to see a clear plan of what happens if our bombing succeeds, but at the moment the most likely outcome is a continuation of the appalling Assad regime and the weak governments in Iraq. Neither of these are great, but are perhaps an improvement on IS. Yes, there is an opposition to Assad in Syria but their political make-up is questionable and it’s a secondary issue at this point. What I do want to see is a broader coalition, and whilst a number of neighbouring countries are resolutely opposed to IS, such as Jordan and Lebanon, some other countries in the region that we have tended to fawn over have, whilst not being pro-IS, have allowed them to operate and receive funding. Whilst bombing may be a suitable way of penning in an appalling regime, what I want us to see more than anything is to work with those regional powers with whom we are often allies to make sure they cut off the channels that keep IS alive. Will that solve the problem? Probably not, but it’s a start. What I feel most though is that we just don’t understand the Middle East and if anything is urgent it’s that.

Finally, I’m surprised at the choice the majority of Liberal Democrat MPs made to vote to bomb Syria, but that surprise makes me think they’ve truly given it plenty of thought. The easy option and one that would be less controversial with most members would be to vote against. But most Lib Dem MPs have voted for and in particular I wouldn’t have seen that as Tim Farron’s natural position. Even if I disagree with my party, and in this case I really don’t know what I think is for the best, I feel positive when they’ve clearly gone through a difficult deliberation. In this case I think they have, and I won’t criticise them for it.

Devolution for Sheffield – a lopsided deal but hopefully one to give us confidence

Sheffield City Region

When I woke up to the news on Friday morning that Sheffield City Region was to get a devolution deal with the government with an elected mayor, I was excited and disappointed all at the same time. Excited that Sheffield had got its act together and jumped the queue but disappointed about the mayor. Largely I’m positive though as I think it’s about time that Sheffield moved out of the shadows of the other big cities, but it does create some interesting complications. This post is looking at some of those but is also my initial instinctive feelings about it all.

Devolution within England has always been controversial, not so much about the principle, but at what level it is done. As I’ve written before, I’ve always had a scepticism about the benefits that a Yorkshire Regional Assembly would bring to my home city of Sheffield. My heart loves the idea of a single body that represents the county in which I grew up, but my head tells me that as far as Sheffield is concerned it makes more sense to have something more focused on the one city and to arrange economic and transport development around the city and its hinterland, much of which falls outside Yorkshire. This post however isn’t intended to go over that argument again but instead it’s to look at the latest proposals and the complications they create in terms of lopsided devolution within their own city region.

The new devolution deal gives Sheffield City Region and its directly-elected mayor a large number of new powers over areas such as transport management, policy and spending, economic development, work benefits and post 19 skills. Whilst many of these are about co-operating with central government to work out what would suit the region best, rather than necessarily a whole new way of doing things, it’s a start. For me the most exciting part of it though is what it could lead to in terms of greater powers, rather than necessarily what’s on offer now. It’s not as big a deal as Greater Manchester got, but it’s a start and I imagine it will gain a momentum that will inevitably lead to further powers.  These powers however apply to the area of the combined authority, which is formally only Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley. Whilst there are a further five local authority areas that form the Sheffield City Region, only the four I’ve named are legally ‘constituent members’ which means the powers of the combined authority only cover those. This creates a lopsided deal that gives lots of powers to one bit of the city region and less to the other.

If you look through the devolution document it is littered with phrases such as “The directly elected Mayor of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority will be responsible for a devolved and consolidated local transport budget for the area of the Combined Authority (i.e. the areas of the constituent councils)” which means it only applies to the four authorities of South Yorkshire not the whole of the city region. This means that one of the new powers the region gets relating to smart-ticketing will only apply to South Yorkshire and not to those other parts of the region for whom they will be as, if not more, beneficial, and perhaps lead to transport authorities in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire not wanting to invest as much in those areas or instead arguing with South Yorkshire over any ideas it comes up with that they could all pragmatically decide to implement across the whole area. Despite this there are other powers that sound more inclusive by not referring just to constituent councils but to the region as a whole such as “Powers over strategic planning, including the responsibility to create a spatial framework for the city region and to chair the Sheffield City Region Joint Assets Board.” This would mean that the mayor had powers over an area that never voted for it. Perhaps the new deal with encourage those authorities who are classed as ‘non-constituent’ to vote to become ‘constituent’ members but it doesn’t seem clear if this is something they are currently considering. If they did however it would not only make everything more joined up but it will also mean they get to choose a mayor who will have a big influence on the future economic prospects of their area whether they are constituent members or not. Somehow the new mayor will need to show that this doesn’t lead to the region becoming dysfunctional if it wanted to gain further powers in the future.

One area in which all parts of the region participate fully is the Local Economic Partnership (LEP). All nine local authorities are part of this body which is actually led by the private sector rather than local authorities, and whilst separate from the combined authority is inherently linked and more or less perceived externally as one body. The new mayor will also sit on this which emphasises how much all of these areas are part of the same economic region and attracting people to invest locally is something for all areas and outside investors won’t really see much difference between the Advanced Manufacturing Park (actually in Rotherham), Markham Vale (in Chesterfield) and Robin Hood Airport (in Doncaster) when one of the attractions will be being part of the Sheffield set-up.  I know I write as someone who lives in Sheffield itself, but one of the issues that I think has stymied the area is the unwillingness to embrace the Sheffield name. Whilst I know the people of towns such as Rochdale or Stockport for example are very proud of the distinctiveness of their towns and hate being lumped in with Manchester, I have detected a general acceptance from those who live there that as Manchester is the main urban centre for their region and has a generally positive reputation that they are a part of the brand that is Manchester. In South Yorkshire, and whilst I think most surrounding areas do see Sheffield as the main urban centre, the other towns feel a lot less attached to it. This may partly be because Sheffield’s brand and reputation as somewhere to look up to isn’t as strong as Manchester’s, or perhaps it’s because when you go between towns in South Yorkshire you pass through countryside rather than it being a continuous urban area. Really though Sheffield as a name should be a lot more powerful and needs to be embraced if everyone is to benefit. In the city’s industrial height, the ‘Made in Sheffield’ name was known throughout the world as a sign of quality, and Sheffield remains to this day the only city in the UK whose name has legal protections which means that companies wishing to use it need extra permission from the government. This should be used to its real potential by the wider region.

Despite my criticism of this lopsided bit of devolution I am still really impressed it is going ahead. I don’t like directly-elected mayors and I would be a little more relaxed about the idea if the mayor also had a small authority alongside to scrutinise decisions and hold reviews in to the policies that the mayor is or could be pursuing just as happens in London. But the argument about the mayor as a model is a whole other post. What I thing is good about this devolution deal though is that I hope it will lead Sheffield to become a bit more pushy and able to be confident about raising its profile more.

As someone who was raised in Sheffield and has lived here most of my life, I get very frustrated when, despite being England’s fourth largest city at around 560,000 people and a city region of around 1.8 million people, people largely ignore the city when they think of the major cities of the country. Many people have no idea that the city is so large or that it isn’t just some scruffy rust bucket in the North of England whose best days are behind it. Whilst this again is enough for a whole other post, I think this perception (or perhaps a lack of a perception) is due to a whole variety of factors which includes things as diverse as an economy that was centred on industries that suffered hugely in the 80s recession, but also not being a base for a regional TV station, not having a metropolitan county named after it, being officially the second largest city in its government region not the first, having two football clubs that haven’t been at the top of football for some time, and many other things. But if there’s one thing that working in Manchester has taught me it’s that Manchester is a city that has a confident swagger and pride that Sheffield doesn’t even come close to. I hope that the introduction of the devolution deal and the mayor will lead to a confidence to talk up the city rather than the main message that has come out of the council in the last few years of just how much the government is giving us a raw deal.  All councils think they get a raw deal from government, but constantly talking about it gives the impression that we are an impoverished backwater, and whilst I would never deny that poverty is a problem in our region, taking the powers that this devolution deal gives us means we can get on and do more about it ourselves.

I have always loved Sheffield and hopefully this deal will give the leading voices in the city region the confidence to talk up how much they love it too.

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.