Richard O’Callaghan is a Conservative activist in Leeds
So the Union lives to fight another day. It now falls to those of us who love our country and don’t want to see her become “one with Nineveh and Tyre” to make sure that the experience of the past few months, when Britain was on the brink of dissolution, is never repeated. Incremental reform will not be enough; only boldness will do.
Our political masters’ panicked promise of additional powers for Holyrood means that the question of a more equitable constitutional settlement for England can no longer be ducked. This is not only right in principle; it is essential for the future of the Union that England, and her mounting frustration that the West Lothian Question has so far elicited no answer, does not become a second front in the battle to breakup Britain.
The Future of England survey reveals that English attitudes towards Scotland have hardened during the course of the independence referendum campaign and we cannot take for granted that the threat to the Union will only ever come from north of the River Tweed. After all, who would have thought only a generation ago, when The Troubles were at their height, that Scotland, not Northern Ireland, would be the horse most likely to bolt from the British stable?
Without doubt, one of the chief drivers behind the ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland was disillusionment with Westminster politics. But as Bob Geldof said, speaking for the rest of Britain in Trafalgar Square:
“We’re all f**king fed up with Westminster”.
Disillusionment with the political establishment is just as acute in England (and Wales) as it is in Scotland, a fact attested by the rise in support for UKIP in all three countries. A change in the constitutional arrangements for England therefore must be seen as an opportunity not only to right a wrong in the post-devolution arrangements, but to change the way we do government and politics in this country for the better.
There are a number of responses to the English Question but the one I support – regional assemblies – is the model which traditionally, Conservatives have been most hostile towards.
First, though, let’s consider the alternatives: Whilst an all-England Parliament, as advocated by ConservativeHome, would satisfy England’s desire for an institutional expression of its national identity, it would not bring about any great change in her political culture.
Even if the new Parliament sits outside London, decisions over domestic affairs would still be taken in the same centralised way, with uniform solutions applied from Berwick to Land’s End. The same problem exists with the English-votes-for-English-laws option, favoured by the Prime Minister.
You can’t have an English legislature without an English executive; what right would a British Labour government have to make decisions if we had a majority Conservative Parliament or Grand Committee for England? This solution provides no closure to English grievances and I’d bet is simply storing up problems for the future.
Another alternative is the super-localist option, suggested by Daniel Hannan and recently, the think tank ResPublica. This regards counties and city regions as the most appropriate devolved units. My concern with this is that there simply isn’t the talent and level of political engagement to make devolved democracy at such a local level a success.
As regards the city regions proposal, it would be unfair to give devolved powers to, say, the Leeds and Manchester city regions whilst withholding them from Cumbria and North Yorkshire. Furthermore, those living in the towns around Manchester and Leeds identify themselves as Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen/-women, not as Mancunians and Loiners.
If there is a happy medium, it would seem to be found in the regions. Nine or ten provinces (a term which better suggests political entities than mere geographical areas) would each administer roughly the same number of people as the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.
Opponents of regional assemblies argue that there is no appetite for them in England. But how do they know? No one’s ever really tried to sell the idea; New Labour made a hash of it and the people haven’t been properly exposed to the arguments. One referendum in one region ten years ago hardly counts as a final rejection of the idea.
That’s not to say the standard regions we currently have are the best. In many cases they fail to reflect local identities and realities on the ground. It would make more sense, for instance, to have assemblies for Yorkshire (without North Lincolnshire), Lancashire (incorporating Merseyside and Greater Manchester), and The Borders (Cumbria, Northumberland and Co. Durham).
Perhaps we could also resurrect the historic identities of Mercia (East and West), East Anglia and Wessex (the area of southern England that’s not quite the West Country and not quite the Home Counties).
This model of English provincial government would be in the best traditions of the Tory Party: more local decision-making resulting, thanks to the end of the subsidy stream from Westminster, in financial responsibility. I also believe it would lead to a blossoming of provincial civic culture, with provincial media, currently in long-term decline, resurgent as the most important political decisions would be taken at home.
For the UK as a whole, regional assemblies would solve the problem of what to do with the House of Lords (make it a representative body for the English provinces and British Home Nations) and allow for a badly-needed slimming down of Westminster, thereby dealing with the objection to regional assemblies on the grounds that they’ll create more politicians. For the Tory Party, this model offers the prospect of a regeneration of the party in the North and Midlands, with the establishment of provincial-level party organisation which would be more representative of the country as a whole.
In making the case for Britain in recent months, unionists have made great play of the benefits to the UK of “unity in diversity”; I see no reason why England shouldn’t likewise prosper from this principle.