I am, I should start by saying, very pleased that Scotland chose to stay as part of the United Kingdom. I said very little during the referendum itself — though that was still too much for some of the Yes supporters — but I was sincerely and desperately hoping for a No vote. Less out of sentimentality reasons — though I don’t deny they were a factor — than of a very real fear of the consequences for the Scottish people.
But now, after the no vote, the flavour of the moment is devolution for England. Constitutionalism has never been so sexy!
I studied public law as part of my degree, so I’m not unfamiliar with the topics involved. And there is a democratic deficit in that England lacks the same level of devolution which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy. This has come sharply to the attention of many people, but most notably Conservative backbencher and right-wing figurehead John Redwood.
Mr Redwood thinks that England needs its own parliament. He thinks that this parliament should be the present Westminster parliament, without the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. Unfortunately, there he is wrong.
It is easy to understand why John Redwood likes this option. He sees that the Conservatives can achieve the majority here that they are unlikely to be able to again achieve with the full UK parliament; and without shaking things up with a whole new English Parliament which could cause people to question whether the Tories have England’s best interests at heart.
But that isn’t equal devolution, is it? Voters in the three other home nations elect MPs to Westminster. But they also elect — different — representatives as their MSPs or AMs. And yet England should have to make do with a dual purpose representative in a discount English Parliament.
I submit that this is an inadequate solution.
Rather, I favour the idea of Regional Assemblies. This isn’t a new idea, and it was rejected by the people of the North East in a referendum ten years ago. But I believe the time is right to revisit the idea.
Eight devolved bodies (not including London, already served by the GLA), representing the North West, North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands, the East Midlands, East of England, South East, and South West. These would provide representation for England similar to probably the GLA or Welsh Assembly to begin with, with Westminster retaining remit over whole-nation issues, such as defence, foreign relations, general taxation, etc.
In short, a federal system, at long last. I would couple it with a reworking of the local government system as well. Abolish outdated and sprawling county-tier local government, and convert all remaining local authorities to unitary authorities. Then you can join up the levels of government, with a unitary authority, beneath a regional assembly, covered by an overarching Westminster parliament.
The advantage here is that it addresses something which John Redwood’s solution wouldn’t: regional disaffection.
Scotland has a single Tory MP. And the Conservative Party are not terribly popular up there, something which even David Cameron had to admit. This is because it has become a party predominantly of the South East, and it is that which has led to similar Tory-free blocks in the North. If English devotion sees the discount English parliament with a Tory majority ruling over the north against its will, then the same separatist instinct will emerge as has in Scotland. And a proportional election system, as all devolved bodies use, will ensure a range of political representation.
Devolution has to be real devolution else it won’t work. Scotland and Wales have developed their own political characters, as has Northern Ireland. Those same identities can flourish in the federalised regions of England.
There is a chance here for a major and radical constitutional reorganisation. Simply looking at the turnout rates for Scotland in this referendum shows what can happen when you give people power over their destinies. Our politics is turning stale and moribund, characterised by apathy. And this could be exactly the way to revitalise it.