Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
Boris calls for London rule
A couple of weeks ago, Boris
Johnson came out in favour of a devolved settlement for the capital comparable to that of Scotland, to allow the city to better exploit and enhance
its unique economic strength. If such a plan were to go ahead, London would
become the largest devolved entity in the UK by population, with 8.2 million citizens against Scotland’s 5.3 million.
is right to point out that it is in keeping with the pattern of metropolitan
governance seen in places like America, where city-level government can be a
very powerful force. For Londoners, one can see the appeal of keeping more of
the wealth the city generates inside its borders, allowing both for lower taxes
and an equivalent or higher level of spending from city hall.
proposal is timely, too, as it comes at a time when unionists are starting to face
up to the challenges of stabilising the constitutional settlement set in motion
by Labour in 1998. The need to resolve the tensions between how different parts
of the UK are government – which really ought to have been tackled as they were
introduced – means that various devolutionary models that might not have been
properly considered before are going to be debated.
that context, where does the idea of devolution for London fit into the debate?
For starters, it might inject some new life into the Coalition’s hope of
extending the idea of powerful city government out of the capital. As the
London mayoralty acquires more power and Londoners can be seen to be exercising
more direct control over their city, it might help to persuade others like
Birmingham and Manchester to think again about retaining the current,
more importantly, devolution for London complicates the entire post-referendum
devolution debate because it represents a revival of the idea of regional
assemblies, Labour’s attempt to resolve the West Lothian Question by
introducing devolved government to England on a regional basis.
of regional assemblies maintain that English-level “devolution” doesn’t
actually bring power appreciably closer to the people, and that besides which the
regions of England are too vastly divergent in economic and political outlook
to be lumped together in anything purporting to be a localist, rather than
explicitly nationalist, scheme. English nationalists think that assemblies “balkanise”
England and insist on equal treatment with the other components of the UK based
on identity, rather than population or economic homogeneity.
side you prefer, there’s not been much life in these proposals since they were
rejected by the North East in a referendum. Yet if a demand for devolution
rises in London it’ll bring the whole idea back to the forefront of the debate.
After all, London MPs will suddenly face the same ‘West Lothian Question’ as
their Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish colleagues.
would also do much to undermine the viability of an English parliament. After
all, if London did get a substantial devolution settlement there would be
precious little room, if any, for an additional division of responsibilities
between City Hall, Westminster and wherever a Parliament of England ended up.
You’d have London MPEs, if they existed, voting on a really tiny stratum of
issues (whilst being full-time and properly salaried, in the modern
devolutionary tradition). Tidy, nationally-based Westminster compromises, such
as “English votes for English laws”, would also end up looking less-than-final,
“rest of English votes for rest of England laws” lacking the same ring.
With London charting its own course, it might
again provide a motivation for other regions to take a second look at the idea
of taking more of their governance into their own hands, to cater to their own
economic and social circumstances and preferences. London might end up actually
leading the revival of the regional assembly concept. Perhaps New Labour ought
to have started there.
The darker side of nationalism – another view
Last week, I wrote about the darker side of Scottish nationalism. Although
most of what I cover here is nationalism in the high political sense, of
constitutional debates, political parties, and so on, it is well worth
remembering that underlying much (not all) nationalism is an unpleasant mind-set
– a mind-set which many may never have the misfortune to encounter first hand
from the wrong side. Aside from the odd encounter during my time in Dublin (from whence I am now safely returned), I’ve not encountered too much of it
I’d encourage you all to read this excellent piece in the Scottish Review about an
aspiring teacher’s first-hand experience of nationalism when she tried to start
her career in Scotland after studying for her degree and professional
qualifications in England. To her surprise and great dismay she found that she –
and many similarly ‘foreign’-trained teachers besides – were effectively locked
out of teaching in Scottish state schools. Eventually she had to take a job in
London, whose cosmopolitanism she favourably contrasts.
suggestion here is not that all nationalists are xenophobes, lest somebody leap
furiously to that conclusion in the comments. Instead it’s another reminder
that although the referendum debate is currently bogged down into a series of
close-range fire-fights over technical matters – shipbuilding, savings, Olympic prospects,
you name it – they really aren’t the point, compared to whether Scots feel that
the English, Welsh and Northern Irish are foreigners or not. The UK is, after
all, supposed to be a country rather than a contract.
(Incidentally, Kate Clanchy
makes a good case for Michael Gove’s freeing of schools and teacher training
from central control. Assuming the bigots she encountered are
unrepresentative of broader Scottish nationalism, a decentralised system
prevents such people from acquiring disproportionate influence. I’m certain that,
had Gove’s system existed in Scotland, Clanchy would have been able to find
employment at a Scottish free school.)
the Prince of Wales’ regalia
Her Majesty’s new Scottish portrait,
some in Wales are also keen to emphasise the British monarchy’s links with the
smaller home nations. Welsh Conservative heritage spokesperson Suzy Davies has called
for the regalia of the Prince of
Wales to be disinterred from the St James’s Palace cupboard they’re currently
mouldering in and put on public display in Wales, to commemorate the upcoming 45th
anniversary of Charles’ investiture in 1969. Sounds like a fine chance to raise public awareness of the monarchy and put it to some use at the same time.