Friday, 27 March 2009

Regional devolution for England

In this post I will argue that the best solution to the so called 'West Lothian Question' (ie. the constitutional anomalies arising from the devolution settlement that was implemented in the UK in the late 1990s) is the adoption of a system of regional government for England.
As I commented in my first post on this blog, a parliamentary system of 'English Votes on English Laws' would introduce as many new problems as it solved by potentially creating a parliament within a parliament, with one party being in power in the larger body (the official UK parliament) and another holding the majority in the smaller entity (the de facto English parliament.
The establishment of an actual English Parliament could also lead to problems, as the population it served would be about five times the size of that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together and its geographical territory would also be larger than that of the others. The Unted Kingdom would have become a type of federation, with one of its members dwarfing (and thereby, very likely, dominating) the other three.
By giving powers to regional authorities (perhaps the same powers as the Welsh Assembly or even the same as the Scottish Parliament, with a Government and a First Minister for each region) not only would the 'West Lothian Problem' be solved but also the power of each citizen would have increased as government would have been brought that much closer to the people.
The main arguments that I have heard or read against regionalisation are (a) that it is undemocratic and would involve regional agencies appointed by central government, (b) that it would 'break up' England into a number of small administrative units, instead of having a unified national parliament like Scotland and (c) that it would create a situation whereby various parts of the UK are forced to compete with each other for favour or funds from central government.
Objection (a) has no bearing on my argument, as I am arguing for regional authorities which would be elected by the populations they serve and be accountable to their electorates (as well as being under the ultimate authority of the UK Parliament, which is itself, of course, accountable to the UK electorate).
As for objection (b), by bringing in regional government we would be in a situation where there was no overall government for England, but where all parts of the UK were subject to the ultimate authority of the UK Parliament. This is basically the situation all of the UK was in for almost 300 years until 1999 and most people in England didn't have a problem with the fact that there was no one political body representing England during that period. It is only the democratic anomalies resulting from devolution in Scotland and Wales that have led to the desire of some people for an English parliament as a way of addressing the perceived unfairness. With the democratic deficit resolved by powers similar to those of the Scottish Parliament being given to the English regions, I believe that any existing demand for an English parliament would fall away once again.
As for objection (c), that regional government would lead to competition for favour or funding from the UK Government, well, isn't that what already happens with local government? And don't different parts of England already compete for these things, anyway, through their elected representatives in the UK Parliament? Competition isn't necessarily always a bad thing anyway, and much of the problem could be resolved by giving the power to raise taxes to the Regional Parliaments, enabling them to be largely locally funded rather than having to get money from Westminster, although there would be a role for central government in guarding against any glaring regional inequalities and in helping to prevent the tendency of resources to be concentrated in and around London and the South East.
I'm not in favour of central government imposing regional devolution on the population of England against their will and I realise that the people of the North East overwhelmingly rejected the idea of regional government when John Prescott tried to sell the idea to them. However, I think the objections may have been in part to do with the fact that the form of regional government that New Labour were proposing involved taking powers away from local councils and also with the perception that this was another tier of politicians being imposed on people, with a concomitant burden of bureaucracy and taxation. In principle though, I see no reason why people might not be persuaded to support a truly democratic, fair and accountable system of regional government for England, with powers migrating downwards from central government towards the regional bodies, as a way of returning a sense of fairness to the UK constitution post devolution.


Chris said...

To bring equality with Scotland, each region would need to have massive powers and basically have to be regarded as a nation.

To bring equality with Scotland, each region/nation would need to consist of about five million people.

It would not work.

Either we have a UK of nations, including England, or a UK of regions, with no national government below UK Government level.

Nothing else is feasible. Regions in England would never have the clout of representative national government in Scotland and, increasingly, Wales.

Chris said...

Having said all that, an English Parliament and a system of regions below that would be fine - so long as the electorate in England was fully consulted about the form such local governance would take, and only representative MPs could vote on it.

I often wonder what is wrong with neighbouring counties being encouraged to liase, and for this to be facilitated? People identify with their counties, and it would be cheaper than setting up this expensive regional stuff, which actually takes local governance further from the people.