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Loyalties are to nation and county, rather than region and continent

My Times column on English devolution following the Scottish independence referendum:


As part of the 1 per cent of England’s population that lives north of Hadrian’s Wall, I have found the past few weeks more than usually intriguing. It was fascinating to find that nearly everybody in the media seems to think the wall is the Scottish border; some news takes 1,500 years to reach the metropolis. And we northeasterners have been banging on for decades about the unfairness of the Barnett formula, which guarantees £1,600 extra in public spending per Scottish head per year, so it’s nice to see the rest of England waking up to that one, too.

Labour needs to be reminded of its biggest electoral defeat. Ten years ago, almost to the day, the northeast was asked by John Prescott if it wanted an assembly and it said “no” in the most emphatic way imaginable — by 78 per cent to 22 per cent in a referendum. That’s not a landslide, that’s an entombment.

Labour’s attempt to squirm off the hook — on which the prime minister impaled it last week with his call for English home rule — will probably include giving the regions more power. That’s what Brussels wants too (and therefore the Liberal Democrats): the European Union’s notorious map of a future in which power lies at the European and regional level does not recognise England as a region. Only by breaking down England into fragments does the nation’s disproportionate size become compatible with federalism.

Yet if anywhere in England should feel ripe for semi-detached regional devolution it would be us in the northeast. We are as chippy as they come about southern condescension, we live farther from London than any other English people, our cities are so isolated by sheep-infested hills from other English cities they might as well be on an island. We speak a patois that southerners claim to find impenetrable, our patriotic regional anthems are about a fictional bus crash and a large worm, we wear very little on a Friday night and we spent hundreds of years joining any doomed rebellion against the crown that was on offer.

Nonetheless in 2004 the people of the northeast spoke with one voice, or at least by a margin of almost four to one, against the idea of a regional assembly. Why? Because, although they like localism, they feel loyalty to England rather than any artificial entity called the northeast. The inhabitants of Sunderland or Berwick or Stockton have less than no desire to be governed from Newcastle. In 2004 they knew a bureaucratic white elephant when they saw one.

The Labour party and the European Commission (and the Liberal Democrats for that matter) just do not get this. Any plan to imitate feckless Scottish or Welsh semi-detachment with gleaming new buildings to house self-important “assemblies” in Newcastle, Birmingham, Norwich, Bristol and Liverpool will go against the grain of England. The one in Cardiff, cut off from much of Wales by miles of sheep and gorse, was put there by just one in four Welsh voters. It has developed a reputation for incompetence where it is relevant at all.

For the Conservatives, the penny has now dropped that English devolution means English votes on English laws inside the Palace of Westminster. I’ve never understood why people find the West Lothian question so hard. We solve it every day in practice: British ministers and civil servants already have no powers over Scottish education, Scottish agricultural subsidies, Scottish health service priorities, Scottish sentencing policy. It works fine.

It’s perfectly possible to exclude Scottish MPs from voting and speaking on these and many other matters, too. There will be the odd moment of confusion when an inebriated Glaswegian MP wanders into the wrong committee debate, but so what? No need to build an over-budget, ugly building in Sheffield and fill it with jobsworth “EMPs”.

Sure, there would be a constitutional crisis if a Labour prime minister were elected with a British but not an English majority, and found himself regularly outvoted, but we have a well-tried solution to such crises — a temporary coalition with another party or a vote of confidence and another general election.

One big advantage of more democratic decision making at the level of the four nations would be to encourage competition between them in tax policy and in the provision of services. We are already seeing glimmers of this in the effect of Wales’s poor and declining results in international school league tables as well as its underperforming health service.

Northern Ireland offers an illuminating example of how devolution should work. Whereas the Scots have refused to use the tax-varying powers they already have, Stormont may be on the brink of leading the way.

Seeing how the Irish Republic’s dramatic cut in corporation tax to 12.5 per cent attracted businesses, Owen Paterson, when Northern Ireland secretary, argued for a similar cut in Northern Ireland. He persuaded all parties there to back the idea and got the Treasury on board by suggesting that it knock the corporation tax income off the province’s central government block grant, making the change revenue-neutral as far as Whitehall was concerned.

The change should happen soon. That is a key lesson for how to do real devolution as opposed to the spend-and-whine version favoured by the Scottish nationalists. Mr Paterson argues that devolution must restore the link between tax, services and votes. England’s antipathy to regionalism need not preclude more localism.

Proper financial accountability at the level of the county, rural or metropolitan, would transform local democracy and attract better councillors. Single-tier counties (many of which are bigger than some American states) would start to compete on price or on quality of service instead of competing, as they do now, on their ability to extract largesse from central government. We should emulate the way America uses state government as a laboratory to test policy.

Of course, there is a heck of a lot that counties (and nations) would not be allowed to do by Brussels: compete on VAT, abolish agricultural subsidies and so forth. But at least we would flush this out. At the moment nobody realises just how many of the decisions that politicians pretend to take are in fact handed down by unelected Eurocrats to unelected Sir Humphreys with a token nod through parliament. Genuine English home rule would soon clash with the technocratic version offered by Brussels. Another reason to like it.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times