The Death of Devolution or a Vow to Save the UK?
There is a view shared by a number of commentators that we are witnessing the ‘death of devolution.’ That might seem counter-factual given we are just over a month away from the historic election of a West Midland Mayor. But the impetus and energy for more devolution at the centre of Government is absent, writes Kevin Johnson.
The disciples of devolution in Government are either departed or detained on other business.
Mrs May has stuck with HS2, the Northern Powerhouse, instructed a beefing up of the Midlands Engine and backed six new mayoralities, including the West Midlands where there’s a chance a Tory could win in natural Labour territory.
If Andy Street doesn’t succeed, which is still the most likely outcome, it arguably takes away further motivation for the Prime Minister to devolve more powers and budgets. Meanwhile, as WMCA Chair Bob Sleigh has recently has cause to comment, progress on long talked about ‘Devo 2’ and ‘Devo 3’ deals seems to have slowed or stalled.
David Cameron was a genuine believer in the potential of elected mayors, but he didn’t spend enough political capital on it. George Osborne was a late convert, but convert he was. He was shoved out the back door of Number 10 to look for new jobs, poor fellow…
Lord Heseltine had about six unpaid advisory jobs in Government, but he’s been unceremonially dispensed with for having the temerity to maintain the same views on the UK’s membership of the EU for decades. Jim O’Neill, so influential in policy commissions and then the Northern Powerhouse before joining Government, was made similarly unwelcome by the change of administration at No 10.
Greg Clark is still there, but he’s a bit busy convincing big businesses to stay in the UK post-Brexit and turning a very green Industrial Strategy Green Paper into a White Paper that doesn’t just collect dust.
Labour does not have a good record when it comes to devolution policy in recent years, with the honourable exception of Lord Adonis who has moved to the crossbenches of the House of Lords in order to be an independent chair of the National Infrastructure Commission.
Yesterday, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown rode into a packed committee room in the House of Lords to make the case not only for devolution, but on the need for a constitutional convention. Regular Files visitors will recognise the man sitting next to Mr Brown – Lord Kerslake of Kerslake Review (and much else) fame.
Say what you like about Gordon Brown – many do. But there are few, across the political spectrum, who would deny his brilliance – for his grasp of detail, passion for ideas and ability to make an argument. It was all done with hardly a glance at his notes. To be honest, it was a political masterclass.
The room had a few Labour beasts of years just gone by, like Peter Hain, John Prescott and George Foulkes. The constitutional expert Vernon Bagdnor, who among many accomplishments is the tutoring of David Cameron (we’ll forgive him), contributed too.
Mr Brown essentially made two big arguments – on economics and sovereignty.
First, the economic data tells a simple story. Relative to their populations, the regions of England are continuing to suffer significant decline when compared to London and the South East in terms of economic growth and new jobs.
Citing the work of Professor Philip McCann, Mr Brown said the incomes per head in the UK’s least performing regions were even worse than the two worst performing states in the US and in areas of the former East Germany.
A review of any data, such as in a House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, lays out the problem very starkly indeed.
Simply put, resentment as well as widening inequality and perceived lack of fairness – not to mention the problems of space, congestion and affordability of housing around the capital – will mean the union will become severely tested.
Second, Brexit, the Scottish Parliament’s call for independence and the challenges of forming a new power sharing administration in Northern Ireland are effectively conspiring to give the UK a political and constitutional crisis.
The former PM’s argument is that vast inequalities in the UK, including between English regions and its capital, could be exacerbated by Brexit.
Whilst clearly depressed by this week’s triggering of Article 50, Mr Brown also sees the opportunity to repatriate powers straight from Brussels to the nations, certainly, and some to the English regions.
The only thing that has gone forward this week is the clocks.
Mr Brown suggested that nations are likely to be handed powers over agriculture and fisheries from the EU, but there were debates to be had over VAT rates, competition policy, state aid, transport and planning, as well as investment and infrastructure decisions being fully devolved to nations and regions.
Mr Brown is a member of a new Labour devolution taskforce which also includes the party’s mayoral candidate in the West Midlands, Siôn Simon, and former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. It met for the first time in Cardiff this week.
Mr Brown said many former Prime Ministers, going back to Gladstone, had battled with the ‘English Question.’ He recalled the city region initiative which he said was underfunded as well as John Prescott’s efforts to have an elected assembly in the north east. Peter Hain suggested that such a referendum, if staged again now, would be won. That might be wishful thinking.
Gordon Brown’s key proposal is a Council of the North, as he set out in the FT on Wednesday.
It would bring together councillors and council leaders, elected mayors and MPs and be handed more and more powers from Whitehall, as well as some of the areas to be repatriated from Brussels. Mr Brown says he has the backing of Labour mayoral candidates in the north.
Councils for the Midlands and other regions would follow.
The former PM did not envisage the body having tax raising powers, at least at the outset.
Mr Brown and Lord Prescott said the north needed a voice. They suggested the strength of anger, in terms of how the economic model works and the capital’s dominance, was greatest in the north.
Lord Prescott made a characteristic, almost word perfect contribution, underlining the importance of keeping proposals for a Council of the North separate from any local government reform. The Northern Powerhouse was, he suggested, a bit of local government reform with mayors “tacked on.”
Chamberlain Files has a number of reservations about the Council of the North idea. For the Midlands, it sounds like a combination of one of the old Regional Assemblies, which mirrored the regional development agencies, with the Midlands Engine – hopefully with some repatriated EU bounty. That doesn’t sound like a winning formula to us.
Peers highlighted the impact on local government of such a proposal, already dealing with funding challenges along with combined authorities and mayors. For the public, the perception of another layer of bureaucracy would not be attractive at a time of declining trust in politics.
While Gordon Brown made compelling arguments on economics and sovereignty – and the need to urgently address a looming constitutional crisis – there was no mention of identity.
Anyone following the campaign for West Midlands Mayor, along with development of both the West Midlands Combined Authority and Midlands Engine, knows that the missing piece in the jigsaw is so often identity.
People do not connect with the West Midlands or Midlands in any meaningful way. They are not areas or concepts that resonate at home or beyond. As we saw at last week’s Coventry Public Debate, many people do not care for the idea of a Mayor, especially one which seems more connected to Birmingham. The Midlands Engine Strategy does not deal with the issue of identity, let alone lay out a real strategy.
The First Minister’s demand for a second Scottish independence referendum was, of course, also a subject for the former MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. We won’t detain Files visitors with that for now, but suffice to say Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to leave the British single market to join the European Single Market, given the respective trading balances, and her aim to use sterling as the new state’s currency within the Eurozone, came in for this old Scot’s scorn.
Mr Brown had a particularly interesting take on the concept of sovereignty. He argued that both the Prime and First Ministers were wedded to an old fashioned notion of ‘state sovereignty’. But now, he said, we should be aiming for ‘popular sovereignty’ – new models for joint and shared sovereignty that enable more decisions to be taken by or near to people.
Power should rest at the most accessible level possible.
As we observe the data and feelings across these British Isles, Chamberlain Files recommends a read of Kevin Meagher’s book A United Ireland Why Unification Is Inevitable and How It Will Come About. Along with Dudley Councillor Cathryn Bayton, these two Kevins spoke at an RSA event on the Future of the UK last week.
Lord Kerslake led yesterday’s session featuring Mr Brown. He chaired last year’s Inquiry into Better Devolution for the Whole UK for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Reform, Decentralisation and Devolution.
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