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.