James Wharton is the MP for Stockton South.
Scotland has narrowly voted to stay in the Union. I am delighted. I did not want to see our country dismembered; the implications of Scotland trying to untangle itself from 300 years of history were horrifying. But what next?
In the heat of the debate, our political leaders rushed out promises of further devolution. With the polls narrowing the Westminster political parties started to talk of a new settlement, a last ditch attempt to make a no vote that bit more appealing. I am worried about what this might mean. I did not put pen to paper before the result as I would not want, in some small way, to have undermined the campaign. Now I need to express my concern.
Here in the North East we sensibly and overwhelmingly rejected proposals for a regional assembly back in 2004. This English Labour heartland stopped the then Government’s plans to further regionalise and break apart our country. I am proud to have supported that important campaign. Sadly, it now looks as though it might have been a temporary victory, causing delay but not defeat to what could easily become an unstoppable march to federalisation.
Scotland competes with Northern England. They are our friends, our neighbours, and in many cases our family – but they are also our competitors. If you want to invest in offshore oil and gas, in fabrication or engineering, you could as easily move to Tyneside or Teesside as to Aberdeen. It is no coincidence that one of the most regular flights from Teesside Airport in my constituency is the direct link to Aberdeen. We share skills and manpower as our economies share industries and needs.
Scottish Enterprise already uses taxpayers’ pounds to entice companies and investment north of the border. With more powers, they will be able to offer greater incentives and compete even more effectively. Our Local Enterprise Partnership here in Teesside does a great job, but it does not have the financial muscle to compete with its Scottish equivalent. For further devolution to mean anything, it must offer Scotland more scope to use its existing advantages. We have no such option here in northern England.
The answer is not to pour additional taxpayers’ pounds into unaccountable bodies so that they can subsidise big industry. If Scotland gets more, the disparity becomes greater. As yet it is hard to see an obvious solution, other than saying no to further significant devolution to Scotland. I do not support a Regional Assembly for the North East, but it is hard to see how we can ensure parity of opportunity for my region if Scotland gets many more powers. English votes on English issues is increasingly important, but even that will not address the direct challenges faced by the North of England.
I am not alone in my concerns. When I speak to my colleagues in Wales there is the worry of how concessions to Scotland could impact on the powers of the Welsh Assembly. MPs in the North West and Yorkshire have told me they share my view of what devolution could mean for their regions. John Redwood began set out his view of the need for an English settlement before the referendum had even concluded. Securing the no vote was a great victory for everyone who supports the union. Ensuring we take the right path now it has been secured means there is much work still to do.
Labour is so desperate to get back into the race in Scotland that it might well be willing to sell the North down the river. The Liberal Democrats, similarly, will likely say and do anything to try to hold on to their vulnerable Scottish seats.
There are fewer Conservative than Labour votes in the North East. At the last election I was the fortunate recipient of just enough of them. I cannot ignore the threat that devolution poses to my region, and I will not stand by if the detail of any proposals ignore their broader impact. We have a chance to be the party that stands up for the north, we must not pass it up.