English devolution is lacking political leadership

Graham Allen says attempts to devolve power in England have so far only tinkered around the edges of what’s needed.

I have always believed that our constitutional settlement should be based on two principles: Union and Devolution.
We currently live in the most centralised state in the Western World, in which mandarins in Whitehall control more of our daily lives than do our locally elected representatives. Such a situation would be unthinkable throughout the rest of Europe and in the United States.
Our constitution should rest on the basis of subsidiarity. It’s an ugly word for a beautiful concept: that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level.
For this reason, I have always supported devolution in England. But our current arrangements are not sustainable. Following the great democratic experiment in Scotland last September and on the basis of the Smith Commission’s recommendations, there will be increased and significant further devolution to Scotland. Wales will not be far behind. England must not be left out.
Current calls for ‘English Votes for English Laws’ only tinker around the edges of the problem of over-centralisation. It would not address the central democratic deficit in England, and would instead create an unworkable two-tier government in Westminster: one for England, and another for the rest of the UK.
Our politics is reaching a crisis point. Only a few months ago we came within 400,000 votes of the Union dissolving. Twenty-three million people did not vote at the last General Election (more than voted for Labour and the Conservatives put together). More Westminster navel-gazing will not help fix this problem.
The future for devolution in England must work for all parts of England, and it lies in independent local government. Localities can and should be responsible for running themselves on the basis of guaranteed political and financial independence. Local problems could then be met with locally-based solutions.
The recent deal to devolve powers to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – so-called ‘Devo Manc’ – may be the start of widespread devolution to localities in England.
But we need to see political leadership and a commitment to devolution to independent local government throughout all parts of England. And in light of the cross-party commitment to setting up a Constitutional Convention in the next Parliament, this option needs to be firmly on the table.
Ideally, devolution in England would be part of a wider, overarching, federal constitutional settlement for the UK. Over the lifetime of this Parliament my Select Committee has produced various documents that illustrate how this might be achieved. Our A new Magna Cartareport set out different options for enshrining the role of devolved and local government in a written constitution, and our recent The UK Constitution sets out in clear, straightforward language the principles on which local government should be organised.
But if that is a step too far, independent local government could also be achieved through a simple Act of Parliament – my Local Government (Independence) Bill sets out a clear blueprint for the future for devolution in England.
What is good enough for Scotland should be good enough for all parts of the UK, England included. The roadmaps for devolution in England are in place. We now need the political leadership to implement them.

Graham Allen MP is Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.

5 thoughts on “English devolution is lacking political leadership

  1. Devolution is the flavour of the moment. If different parts of the UK were devolved, citizens would at some point find themselves discussing uniting policies and practice again, because it would seem practical to do so. A devolved Manchester would, I suppose, trigger independence claims by other regions, cities, and towns. But I suppose that if schools may set themselves up as independent educational establishments, and hospital trusts may too, and dental practices have to by-and-large, then why not individual cities, and so on? Independent, self managing cities, could become more competitive, more exclusive, more selfish, and paradoxically more inward-looking in order to maintain their advantages. These new mini states might even come to be controlled by petty hierarchies, dominated by dotty but effective dictators, competing to be top dog (need I say more?). I think that it’s the efficacy of government, the checks and balances, the distribution of income, funding, and development, the cooperative processes that enable us to work together for the goid of all, that need reviewing, in public. Magna Carta, after all, was created for the whole state, as it existed then, not just for a few groups of people, or for piecemeal application.

  2. Graham,

    “We now need the political leadership to implement them.”

    Communities who wish to have a degree of political independence (at whatever level) ordinarily define the scope and terms of that ambition themselves – well, the happy and sustainable ones do.

    That is not to discount the role of agency or ‘leadership’ in that process, only to point out that it is leadership from within, rather than from without, that will determine success and sustainability.

    If someone from outside has to define the bounds and extent of that community project, there isn’t really a meaningful community project to talk of. Whatever you think about Irish, Scottish, Welsh or Cornish nationalism or regionalism (for those who see it in those terms), they are movements from within, which have evolved in contradistinction to the centre.

    If you are calling for leadership ‘from within’ to begin the process of exploring where and how much ambition for community independence there is in England, you’re on the right tracks.

    If you’re calling for leadership ‘from without’ to construct independent communities for people who do not consider themselves (demonstratively) to be an independent community, you are setting up England for some difficult times ahead.

    The first recognised Welsh Home Rule movement (Cymru Fydd) was established in 1886. Democratic devolution happened in 1999. The Manchester approach may well be the start of something successful and sustainable for England, but whatever you do, please let it happen ‘from within’.

  3. The paradox of this article is that it is ‘top down’ thinking in the name of subsidiarity.

    There is no administrative need, or organic demand, for devolution to English regions. In the same way, the people of Manchester rejected an elected mayor – but they are having one imposed on them anyway.

    Similarly, the impetus for the latest round of Welsh devolution is coming from England, in response to events in Scotland, not from the Welsh people or even the Welsh ruling class, who are simply reacting to Westminster.

    Moreover, as a general point, devolution is not the same as decentralisation or subsidiarity. ‘Powers’ are given not to local people or communities, but to new bureaucracies, which, like the Welsh assembly, tend to use them to centralise, not least in themselves. The reform of Welsh local government which makes it less local is the latest example of this devolution leading to less decentralisation.

  4. From a Welsh perspective, a federal UK would satisfy so much of what devolution has not been able to so far and could end the debate for several generations. It is just a shame that people in England do not want it! I take Graham Allen’s point about leadership though – I wonder how clearly the benefits of a federal settlement have been put to the people of England?

    Opposition to devolution always seems to rest on a general distrust of government and a cursory glance at what has worked in the past. For me, federalism across the whole of the UK – including English regions – represents a system of government that better addresses the problems of the future. The UK looks like a success when compared with how other systems have turned out thus far, and at present it is hard to find any other models of success, particularly when the EU is in so much trouble. But current success does not disguise the threats that face England as well as the rest of the UK – sustainable use of resources and ensuring social cohesion in the face of increased global competitiveness require new thinking, and government that is closer to people’s everyday lives. With more information available to public servants than ever before, devolving power does not have to result in incompetence or parochialism. But until England joins the debate in a constructive way, we will keep going round in circles.

  5. I think we’d be better off leaving English matters to the English and focussing more closely upon what is happening here in Wales.

    The Welsh assembly is responsible for health, education and local government. Three failing areas of everyday life here in Wales.

    What is being done, when will we see improvements and who is carrying the can? No, it isn’t good enough to say next year we can have our say. We pay to for these services to be performant on a daily basis.

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