When William Hague launched his consultation on ‘English Votes for English Laws’, he explicitly positioned devolution to English city-regions as an integral part of constitutional reform. Many in Labour have also championed English devolution as the answer to English demands for better representation. Chuka Umunna recently asserted that the English were more interested in developing their regional identities than a national political voice (though he subsequently advocated an English Labour Party and Parliament, as sign of how rapidly Labour’s debate is developing.)
Placing English devolution on a par with devolution to Wales and Scotland is currently so commonplace that is rarely challenged. Yet a glance over the past 20 years shows that at the rare times when the relentless grind of English centralisation has slowed, the devolution of powers and resources away from Whitehall has often had motives a long way from constitutional change.
Devolution but not constitutional change
From time to time – as with Labour’s ill-fated attempt establish a North East Assembly – the connections with the establishment of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have been explicit. But much of the time, change has been advocated for reasons of administrative efficiency, economic policy or public service reform. Democratic impulses to allow more decisions to be taken by locally accountable people have been more than outweighed by a Whitehall-supported technocratic drive to redistribute administrative and executive power elsewhere – between officials in the capital, and a network of others who operate outside of London but are tied into central structures.
New Labour began government deeply suspicious of local councils that it saw as inefficient and politically corrupt. Major programmes like Sure Start were explicitly developed outside local authority leadership. Targets, ring-fenced funding, audits and inspections were the rule. Long after the death of elected regional assemblies, Labour bought into a Whitehall-inspired, bureaucratic regional agenda which persuaded successive ministers of the importance of inane policies like regional probation services. Now the intellectual tide has begun to turn.
George Osborne’s advocacy of ‘the northern powerhouse’, along with similar proposals from Andrew Adonis and Michael Heseltine, reflects the most recent interest in devolving power – in the need to tackle the relative economic underperformance of many major English cities. Devolution is not a constitutional imperative but a step in creating the large, well-connected metropolitan regions with strong universities and cultural capital that are seen to drive global innovation. Empowered local leadership is essential, but as a means to an end, not a principle.
The second driver for change is the desire to make the most effective use of public expenditure. In the last year of the Labour government, the ‘Total Place’ project had the ambition, at a conceptual level at least, to see all public spending in a local area as coming from one public spending pot, whose funds could be moved between services to achieve the best possible outcome. This was always a good idea: early intervention and support for troubled families, for example, is known to reduce spending later. But it is currently hard to shift resources from the services that would benefit in the long term, like the criminal justice system, in order to fund the early action.
But even Total Place had unresolved tensions between the democrats and the technocrats. Some, including this author, saw elected local councils as the leading authority in local partnerships. Others wanted power to lie with networks of officials and public servants. Total Place had only delivered a few successful pilots before it was wound down by the Coalition, and none of the current city region deals begins to approach its ambitions.
The idea that public money can best be used locally and flexibly, has, however, come back into fashion as austerity bites. Central government departments that have long held onto their power now know they can’t deliver the services that are expected from the budgets they will now control. Letting go may not work, but at least it’s worth a try, and for once Whitehall can see the advantages in someone else taking responsibility if it fails.
The new consensus on English devolution, though welcome, has been driven more by a developing Whitehall/Westminster view of how best to deliver pubic policy than any constitutional idea that citizens and their local councils should be empowered as a matter of right.
The Cities and Local Devolution Bill currently before Parliament does not extend a single additional legal right to local government or local people. It actually creates new rights for ministers to overrule local democratic decisions! (For example, to force a council to join a ‘combined authority’ and to insist on elected mayors even where local people have voted to reject them.) If this is devolution, it’s a very British, top-down, ‘do what Whitehall says’ form of devolution in which ministers and officials hold all the powerful cards. Nothing could be further from the idea of a new constitutional settlement advocated by for example, Graham Allen MP and the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.
Wales and Scotland have gained clear legal rights to a certain level of power and authority, and are about to get more. No part of England is to gain any similar administrative power, let alone the ability to legislate. It is simply impossible to equate the current reforms in England with the constitutional devolution of power to Wales and Scotland (and Northern Ireland).
Modest change may lead to demands for greater change
Having said that, constitutional change is a process, not an event. Constitutional reform of any sort tends to unleash unexpected consequences – just ask the Labour Party in Scotland. The big city leaders who have been dealing with George Osborne are neither stupid nor unusually vain. They fully understand the poisoned chalice they are being offered. But after years of being denied a leading role, they rightly think that it is better to seize the chance, even if limited and even under unfavourable circumstances.
Rhetoric has its own political potency; all political parties now agree that city-regions and major counties can and should lead and deliver. No longer is government language riddled with public doubts about the competence and motives of council leaders.
The implications of this change are worth exploring. It will prove harder for the northern powerhouse to develop as a dynamic global metropolis than George Osborne hopes. There’s too little money (despite the promises of the Tory manifesto) and the powers are too limited to tackle effectively the structural weaknesses in the region. But regional public policy since the war has hardly been a success story and, even with too little money, each public pound is likely to be better spent closer to where it is needed.
Now that it is clear councils are expected to lead, any disappointment or failure will be seen as the failure of Whitehall to given enough away, not of local leadership. Council leaders will undoubtedly demand more powers, less bureaucracy and fewer restrictions. In doing so, many combined local authorities will be strongly supported by local business communities, anxious to shape skills, transport, planning and infrastructure policy to suit the needs of their local areas.
The language of local leadership and local growth will also foster the local sense of identity that dynamic city-regions enjoy. For some time now, the best-led local authorities have been increasingly good at fostering the cultural and business partnerships that define these as proud and exciting areas for their own citizens and the world at large. The importance of place is growing, not shrinking, as the economy globalises.
Strengthening a new and diverse English identity
This is likely to bring a new twist to the fast-developing sense of English identity. Self-professed ‘Englishness’ has been on a rapid rise for some time now. But English identity has always been multi-layered, seen through the town, city or regional identities of Londoners, Scousers, Geordies and the rest. Civic identities can be as strong or stronger than national identities and a more accessible route to Englishness for many from minority communities.
Far from being an alternative to an English political identity, devolution is likely to strengthen it, but in new and diverse forms.
While the government is unleashing some powerful new forces, at national level it is destabilising the Union settlement in a way that will further develop English civic identity.
In implementing the Hague proposal, the government plans to give English MPs unprecedented powers to determine ‘English-only’ legislation. The immediate changes in Westminster may be less than political rhetoric suggests, depending on how much legislation is defined as English only. But having told the English public that their MPs should have the same power to decide English domestic legislation that Scottish MSPs and Welsh AMs enjoy, David Cameron has raised the stakes. He may struggle to explain why much legislation that ‘looks English’ turns out to be subject to amendment or decision by all Westminster MPs.
EVEL is only the start
Once again, political rhetoric will take on its own life. Political pressure will surely grow for more radical changes in parliamentary procedures, in the second chamber as well as the Commons. The logic of EVEL will lead towards the Anglicisation of the executive itself. It is hard to argue against the principled democratic case for EVEL, but it seems likely that the Conservatives have begun a process without stopping to think about where it will lead.
Constitutional change is notoriously difficult to predict. Even when the direction of travel seems clear, the pace of change remains uncertain. But over time, the changes in Parliament and at the local level will have their impact on the political parties.
The electoral map of England is rapidly being balkanised, with contests between Labour and the Tories in some regions, the Tories and the Lib Dems in some, and UKIP and Labour in others. Renewed emphasis on local decision making may create some unexpected realignments in local politics. Elected mayors will inevitably bring new politicians to the fore, with Labour being challenged in its heartlands by independents, Tories and UKIP. In the unlikely event that George Osborne imposes mayors on any Tory run areas, the same will happen in reverse.
If Labour wants to recreate the progressive coalition that spans the aspirational and successful, along with those members of the working and middle classes who feel increasingly left behind by social, economic and demographic change, it will have to embrace both the new localism and a distinct, autonomous and democratic English Labour.
The Conservative Party, too, will continue to change. The once-great Conservative and Unionist Party is today becoming the English National Conservative Party. Only a few traditional Unionists have spoken out against the impact of EVEL on the House of Commons as a Union Chamber, and, potentially the Union itself. The Conservative Party now sees its power, and the focus of its interest, in England. All the political efforts of the new Government have been designed to extend Conservative influence into England’s Labour heartlands, not to broaden Tory appeal in Wales or in Scotland.
Taken together, all these changes point to a growing Anglicisation of English politics. English voters have traditionally drawn little distinction between voting for Britain’s future and voting for England’s future. In coming elections they will increasingly ask: ‘what does this mean for England?’. The visceral response of some Conservative voters to the perceived threat of an SNP government gives only a little foretaste of how future elections may feel.
The politicians are not in control
Decisions currently being made by politicians will fuel this process, but it would be a mistake to believe even that politicians have created the change, let alone that they are in control of it. Several Tory sources have confirmed that the salience of the ‘fear of the SNP’ was clear when it arose spontaneously in focus groups. The Conservatives had not originally planned to make it such a large part of their campaign.
Self-professed English identity has been on the rise for 15 to 20 years; only recently has it begun to cross over into democratic politics. For reasons ranging from the decline of the symbols of Britain to the assertiveness of Welsh and Scottish identity, to the impact of the EU to the effects of migration, more and English people have been asking ‘who are we?’. This exploration of English history and identity has been far more apparent in literature, art, theatre, film and culture than it has in politics, but this is now changing.
When I was first a Southampton parliamentary candidate in the 1980s, decisions about whether to build ships on the South Coast, in the North East or in Scotland were, largely, seen as decisions by a British Government about which British shipyard to build. When the closure of the Portsmouth shipyard was announced in 2014, local people uniformly saw it as an England vs Scotland decision. The EU referendum debate in England is likely to feel very different from that in the other nations of the UK.
The big unknown is what will now happen in English civic society. Already, albeit on a small scale, some civic groups are challenging the idea that the constitutional debate can be owned by Westminster or Town Hall politicians. The number of local ‘constitutional conventions’ being organised is growing. Business wants its own voice in these debates.
Beyond that, the future is far from clear. We do not know what sort of English identity will predominate. It might put at the heart of its vision the fearful, ethnically-defined and inward-looking rejectionist England epitomised by the EDL, and seized upon by UKIP; or it could be a confident, inclusive and outward-looking English identity. English history opens the door to both possibilities and a range in between.
However Englishness develops, a centrally determined and limited devolution of powers to some major city regions and large counties will clearly not prove the long-term counterpart to Scottish and Welsh devolution that many Westminster politicians fondly imagine it can be. Instead, we are more likely to see further instability in the relations between local and national government in England, and further instability in parliamentary procedures.
A full-blown constitutional convention to determine all these issues, including the future of the Union, seems a long way away. It is more British and more English to proceed step by step. But some map of the way forward, some sense that the government has identified the issues that need to be tackled, is urgently overdue.