Friday, 27 February 2015

Devol u-turn? (Part 2)

In part 1 of this post I outlined some of the questions and doubts I’ve had lately about regional devolution. Below are the conclusions I have come to after giving these issues some more consideration
It’s true that if regional authorities are given tax raising powers similar to those that have been promised to the Scottish parliament then there is a risk of a fiscal and economic 'race to the bottom' – but in this globalised economy, competition to attract business and investment is inevitable anyway. With devolution, however, there could be a complementary 'race to the top' as, with the increase in local accountability and scrutiny that should accompany its implementation, regional politicians compete to be the best at using revenue as efficiently, and as beneficially to their electorate, as possible. And they would be aided in this by the possibility of emulating examples of best practice that would accrue from the diversity of approaches to governance that would proliferate under a system of regional devolution.
As for the matter of Conservative domination of the East of England region, hopefully any devolved regional assembly would be elected using a proportional system, as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This would go some way to reducing the extent of the Tories’ dominance. Also, the very fact of devolution itself would hopefully spark a greater level of local involvement in politics, both in terms of activism and of voting, which could have an unpredictable effect on the current political status quo in the region. Nevertheless it is still highly unlikely that any regional government for the East of England would be anything other than a Conservative government.
One possible counterbalance to this Conservative domination of the region could be the retention of an important role for central government in a devolved UK, in terms of guaranteeing a certain level of protection for vulnerable groups within society. The best solution, in my opinion, would be for central government to have the role of establishing overall policy in regard to such areas as the NHS, public investment, benefit levels etc, while the regional assemblies take responsibility for local implementation of those policies on the ground. This could be quite an effective system, helping to counter the effects of over-centralisation that have often been a problem in the past. In fact, many of the regions have deeply ingrained traditions of support for one or other of the main political parties although the UK electorate as a whole has, over the last 100 years or so, regularly replaced central government of one political stripe with that of another. It is, therefore, in the interests of democracy that central government retain its role as the main tier responsible for major areas of policy – the alternative would be the potential disenfranchisement of all those who, like myself, would find themselves stranded in political ‘enemy territory’.
After much consideration, then, I still believe that there are huge benefits that could be derived from the introduction of regional devolution in terms of enhancing democracy and bringing power closer to the people and that the potential disadvantages could be offset by putting in place the proper checks and balances – and in particular by the establishment of a system of proportional representation in the election of regional governments – to prevent the existing political demographics of England from holding back that potential increase in popular involvement and democratic empowerment.

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