Labour supporters of English devolution currently face a dilemma which can only be resolved by a nationwide citizens’ convention. Do they embrace the offer from the Conservative government for devolution to individual and combined local authorities, while recognising all its flaws? Or do they decide that the flaws are so great that they should reject what is currently being proposed? My unequivocal answer is that the first option, to take up whatever is on the table, is the correct one. But in taking the government at its word, we should be clear that we are at the very beginning of a citizens’ convention process that should eventually lead on to a fully federal UK, in which the full benefits of devolution being provided to the other parts of the UK are extended throughout England.
Devolution was both the greatest success and the great failure of the Labour administration that was first elected in 1997. We achieved more than many imagined was possible in introducing self-government to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Though there have been difficulties, the systems have become politically entrenched, and the devolved powers have been extended. People living in the devolved territories have more direct, democratic control over the decisions that matter in their day-to-day lives. In 1997, many found it difficult to envisage how devolution would work, whether it would be introduced, and if it was whether it would last. It is now impossible to conceive of a United Kingdom without it. Labour deserves to be proud of this achievement, something which other parties, such as the nationalists, for all their talk, never delivered and even opposed. Everyone is an advocate of devolution now it has happened. But they were not at the outset.
But England has lagged behind. With the exception of Greater London, until recently devolution has not been introduced here. Most of the population of the UK, therefore, have been denied the benefits of devolution. We in the Labour party have to face up to the fact that we have failed England. The north east referendum of 2004, which effectively killed off our plan for devolution to the English regions, was held too late in the political cycle; the package being put before the electorate was too modest; and the ‘yes’ campaign lacked sufficient organisation and vigour. Consequently, the Labour government was unable to produce a coherent programme for the decentralisation of power within England.
And all the while devolution was being introduced – or not introduced – across the UK, another integral part of our democracy, local government, was languishing. Local government, despite providing for the most basic functions of voters, has for decades been chronically undervalued, and denied the ability to set its own policy priorities and raise its own finance.
Consequently, for most of the population of England, there is no meaningful tier of democratic government, either local or devolved, below the remote Westminster/Whitehall level. This degree of concentration of power is unheard of in the democratic world. Those in England who complain of a distant, bureaucratic superstate wielding inappropriate levels of power over our lives should look not to Brussels, but to London. We should not be surprised if there is some resentment in England regarding devolution. But the true answer to this phenomenon is not to create processes which exclude non-English MPs in the House of Commons, as English votes for English laws (EVEL) does. The real response to those who claim that the UK outside England is receiving favourable treatment is to provide England with the devolution that is available elsewhere. There is no plausible justification for denying it.
England is the last outpost of the Empire and it is time it declared its independence from Whitehall. But the answer is not, as some claim, to establish an English parliament. Superficially, this option may seem attractive. It would mean ‘home rule all round’ and could facilitate the construction of a federal state based around the national identities that make up the UK.
But there are problems with this model alone. First, it would not deal in any meaningful way with the need for decentralisation of power. We would simply be replacing a parliament for about 65 million people with a parliament for about 55 million people. Government would not noticeably come any closer to the people of England than it was beforehand. This incidentally is the trap those who want to leave the European Union also fall into, returning power to a mythical sovereign parliament which in truth is the feeble captive of over-centralised executive power in Whitehall.
And there is a more serious defect in the English parliament model. Aside from what it does not do – that is, deliver meaningful devolution to the people of England – there is a more tangible problem of what it might do. A UK, whether a full federation or otherwise, that sought to incorporate England as a whole, single unit would be inherently unstable. England would account for more than 80 per cent of its population. There is no known example of a federation anywhere in the world that was able to accommodate within it a state of this size. Whatever arrangements were devised would leave either the non-English participants or England unfairly treated – or both. Such a measure would be a gift to those who sought to destabilise the UK and accelerate its disintegration. Any problems we might think are associated with EVEL would be magnified. While calls for an English parliament may have a populist appeal to them, responsible politicians should not promote this course of action.
The more plausible alternative is an England of devolved regions. I am aware that some will claim that the north east referendum of 2004 closed off this pathway; that the regions are meaningless administrative constructs, and that the public do not want them. But an important political reality is that the present Conservative government is doing something that never happened in any meaningful way during thirteen years of Labour in power. It is devolving within England. Previously, the Conservatives were the main opponents of English regionalism. Now it is in the process of extending new powers to local authorities and conglomerations of local authorities, some of which are large enough to resemble regions (like the West Midlands) or at least city regions (in particular, Greater Manchester). It is important to appreciate the significance of this shift in approach, however imperfect the execution might be at this stage.
Some see these Conservative proposals as some kind of Conservative trick. The opponents do indeed make valid criticisms. The powers on offer are not immense. The idea of imposing directly mayors whether or not they are wanted, and not providing proper accountability for those mayors, is objectionable. It might in some cases threaten to undermine more local government. The process of this round of English devolution has hardly been a model of transparency and democratic engagement.
But I cannot agree with the conclusion that we should simply refuse to take what is on offer. We need to embrace it, make a success of it, and then demand more. As we have seen in all the other devolved territories, once devolution is introduced, it has a habit of taking hold and creating an appetite for its extension. I would like one day to see a federal UK, with English regions sitting alongside Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as states, in a reformed second chamber. Achieving this end will involve some compromises. To attain complete geographical coverage, it will probably be necessary to use the set of regions that Labour initially anticipated deploying for devolution, but in which we lost confidence following the 2004 north east referendum defeat. Not everyone likes these particular regions, but I defy them to find a better set which can command consensus.
However, there are some principles on which we cannot compromise. First, devolution should mean just that – transferring power downwards from the centre, not upwards from the localities. There remains a need for a constitutional codification of the independent position of local government which is commonplace in most western democracies, enabling local government to form the policies it wants to within its sphere of operation, and raise the money it needs to implement them, ultimately accountable to voters in the areas it serves and above all able to evolve the partnerships, electoral systems and governance that local people so choose. Second, ultimately the same powers that are on offer at devolved level in Scotland should be available everywhere else, including in Wales and across all the English regions (the position in Northern Ireland is of course subject to the wider peace process). English regional parliaments would, in a viable federal UK, have wide fiscal and primary law-making powers. This arrangement would provide the true answer to the West Lothian question, and would render EVEL redundant. A full account of how it could work can be found in a recent Federal Trust pamphlet written by Andrew Blick of King’s College London, entitled Federalism: The UK’s future?
The federal system could be enshrined in a written constitution, endorsed by a citizens’ assembly, composed of members of the public working alongside representatives of the parties. The present Conservative proposals are a start, we should stop whinging and start building, stop negative oppositionism and transcend the current offer with radical proposals of our own. A citizens’ convention is about to begin and will put proposals to the 2020 parliament, but this should stimulate not stop each party from working out its own position. It is essential within Labour and beyond that we respond to the English devolution initiative in a positive fashion, treating it as a starting point towards more ambitious objectives. Otherwise the party that should be proud of having brought about devolution risks finding itself on the wrong end of history this time around.