English dilemmas 1: Which English dog is barking?

John Osmond explores efforts to put life into the idea of political regionalism in our closest neighbour

A range of Welsh Labour politicians who have recently been calling for a fresh look at the prospects for regional government in England, including MPs Peter Hain and Paul Murphy and also, by implication, AMs Carwyn Jones and Mick Antoniw, will be much encouraged by the emergence of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation. Based in Huddersfield with a range of Labour figures at its head, including Lord Prescott as its patron, this new think tank that was launched a few weeks ago has as its first objective to

“Influence the political agenda in the UK, at national, regional and local level in support of elected regional government for the North.”


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There is a degree of hesitancy, however, about what exactly it is campaigning for. As its website explains:

“The Foundation will develop as a forum for discussion on the most appropriate forms of devolution for the North of England. We do not have fixed view, as of now, on powers for devolved government or whether there should be separate assemblies for the North-East, North-West and Yorkshire.”

The backcloth is the referendum on regional government for the North East of England that was decisively rejected in 2004. It can be argued, as Peter Hain has done, that real devolution was not on the table in that plebiscite. Rather, what was on offer was merely a reorganisation of local government with the existing two-tier system of counties and districts being merged and an ‘expensive’ regional layer added on top. The big budget functions of health and education remained un-devolved. The regional tier would have taken over the regional development agency and have a few planning powers added on. Since then, of course, regional development agencies have been abolished across England.

A major impetus behind the formation of the new Foundation, named after an inspirational early member of the Independent Labour Party in northern England, appears to be resentment at the dominance of the south-east within England.  This was made clear by a letter to the Guardian by the Foundation’s General Secretary Paul Salveson last Tuesday, which was prompted by an earlier article on Wales and devolution People have a new sense of what it is to be Welsh (2 February). Salveson noted that the article’s author, journalist John Harris:

…writes of Wales’s ‘marginal’ position within the UK, bumping up against ‘the political and economic dominance of the English south-east as never before’. He’s absolutely right but the comment highlights the fact that inequalities within the UK are not between a unified ‘England’ against Wales and Scotland but hinge on the very specific dominance of the English south-east. Many of the economic problems, and political marginalisation of Wales and Scotland are shared by some of the English regions, particularly the North.

In the same article Wales’s First Minister Carwyn Jones, talks of the need for a ‘federal’ Britain and it makes much sense if we are to avoid a complete breakup of the UK. But that should be on the basis of directly elected English regional assemblies working in a friendly and collaborative way with their Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish brothers and sisters. Otherwise, a single ‘English’ parliament, representing a population of over 51 million, with the south-east dominating, would still dominate Scotland with its 5.1 million souls and Wales with 3 million.”

There’s a neat logic to this, but the question is the premise on which the logic is based. That is to say, to what extent is the desire for English regional government widely shared by people living in England, let alone the English political class? The recent IPPR survey of English attitudes, largely carried out by academics at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, The dog that finally barked- England as an emerging political community, discovered a growing sense of English identity but on the basis of England as a whole rather than any prior regional sensibility.

There is undoubtedly a strong sense of regional identity within England, evidenced by regional accents and artistic output (most notably literature). However, there is very little sign that this has any political expression. Where are the regional political movements within England, for example? No-one stands for election on a platform for regional government in Mercia, Wessex, the North East or the North West (Cornwall is a notable exception). No-one from the Hannah Mitchell Foundation is likely to do this since they would first have to resign their Labour membership.

England, as Enoch Powell once observed, is a parliamentary nation. So it is that the mainstream English response to the dilemmas of devolution has been to establish a Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons, chaired by Sir William Mackay. This is widely expected to come up with a recommendation on some version of ‘English votes for English laws’, thereby creating an English Parliament within the Palace of Westminster for one or two days a week.

Where all this will leave the problem of the over-centralisation of the British polity on the English south-east, and the consequences for the development of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remains unknowable, because it is in the future. What it surely tells us, however, is that political regionalism within England is unlikely to be part of that future.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

11 thoughts on “English dilemmas 1: Which English dog is barking?

  1. Why are Welsh politicians commenting on the governance of England? They should try taking care of Wales’ business, which surely is a full-time job, and keep their bigoted noses out of England’s affairs. By the same token, politicians based in England (I can’t call them English, as they don’t call themselves English) should refrain from commenting on Welsh affairs. Messrs Hain, Jones and Murphy, if you’re reading this, England’s nowt to do with thee, so tha can booger off.

  2. Why do we care? Why do we worry about the mote in our neighbour’s eye when there is a beam in our own? Our public services are struggling and our economy cannot support us without massive hand-outs from England. Physician heal thyself….

  3. The whole ‘South East domination’ mantra is a red-herring used by opponents of English Nationalism. They try to divide my country in a way never tried with Scotland or Wales. The Brits wouldn’t have dared!
    I’ll thank the Welsh, Scots, N.Irish and British to get their noses out of England’s affairs.
    Here’s a radical idea. Why not ask all the people of England what we want. The Brits asked Wales and Scotland more than once. We have never been consulted.
    If the Brits try the idea of a Federation, I’m willing to give it a go. The fact we would be the largest percentage of that federation, is just too bad. Blair should have thought of that when he agreed asymmetric devolution.

  4. “No-one stands for election on a platform for regional government in Mercia, Wessex, the North East or the North West ”

    The Wessex Regionalist Party has put up candidates for all but one Westminster election since 1974, but without much support for their cause, securing only 62 votes in 2010.

  5. Whereby everyone else is being kept out of the Scottish Independence referendum, then so should everyone else keep their business out of England’s affairs.
    The English overwhelmingly support a Full English Parliament.

  6. “The backcloth is the referendum on regional government for the North East of England that was decisively rejected in 2004. It can be argued, as Peter Hain has done, that real devolution was not on the table in that plebiscite”

    I would also add that the form of the regions played a part. Very few were interested in a South West Regional Assembly but the grass-roots campaign for a Cornish Assembly was, and still is, strong. I only need mention the petition of 50,000 signatures that was gathered calling for a Cornish Assembly that New Labour chucked in the bin.

  7. A coupe of corrections for you:

    1. Cornwall does not have a regional political movement – it is a national one – for the Duchy of Cornwall, a crown dependency outside the UK but administered like it was English

    2. People do stand on regional autonomy in Wessex and Northumbria – they just haven’t got many votes, so far!

  8. Re: R. Tredwyn.

    Isn’t it time Wales learned to survive without massive handouts from England? Everybody has to stand on their own two feet at some stage.

  9. To David Kelly,

    Well the north east gets equally massive handouts. Only the south east (excluding London) and the eastern regions are in surplus and don’t get handouts. The rich parts of any country support the poorer parts whether it’s Ausralia or Germany. Are we in a Union or not?

  10. The north-east is still part of England, and it’s all right for the wealthier parts of England to support the poorer parts of England, but English money should not be spent outside England. Don’t take this personally, but I don’t regard the different nations within this ‘Union’ as family. Wales is merely England’s neighbour. I assume you look after your own household before you think about anyone else.

  11. Well that’s clear enough. So much for the United Kingdom if people think like you. Too bad no-one thought to tell all those Welsh boys killed or maimed in Iraq, Afghanistan and all of the other English wars down the centuries that they weren’t ‘family’.

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