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 Carta? report 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.