Andrew Blick (Academic from Kings College, London, Associate Researcher at the Federal Trust and Management Board member of Unlock Democracy).
Graham Allen (Labour MP and chair of the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee)
Lord Tyler (LibDem peer)
Meeting chaired by Brendan Donnelly (Director of the Federal Trust )
A truly depressing meeting . Depressing because all the speakers subscribed to such a sunny view of a decentralised world it would have made Dr Pangloss feel a little uneasy; depressing because the three speakers were cynically peddling a Balkanise England by stealth agenda and depressing because most of the audience were ready to swallow the agenda because it demonised Westminster and presented decentralisation as an unalloyed good which would strengthen not weaken England .
All three speakers proclaimed the devolution to the Celtic Fringe a success, all three speakers were opposed to an English Parliament ; all three speakers wanted powers currently held by Westminster to be devolved to local government.
There was precious little if any awareness from any of the speakers of the administrative complexities of what they proposed or the costs involved.
Blick was the main speaker, having produced for The Federal Trust a pamphlet Devolution in England: A New Approach. As he spoke my mind drifted to the provisions of the Trades Description Act because new it wasn’t. His ideas have been around for years as a device to deny England a national Parliament and political voice.
Blick was engaged in a time honoured political tactic, namely, an obfuscation exercise. He did not rule anything out absolutely, but by the end of his plan the listener or reader is left in no doubt that what he wants is to Balkanise England by a thousand cuts. His method of doing this is to advocate a bizarrely complicated political regime whereby powers currently in the hands of Westminster are transferred to councils not wholesale, that is, every council to have the same powers, but rather piecemeal, with individual councils to select from a menu of current Westminster powers , choosing some rejecting others. The consequence of this would be a mosaic of councils with differing powers, something which would create even more confusion in the public mind as to exactly it is that councils do.
Not content with this complexity, Blick advocates councils linking together to cooperate in certain areas. The effect of this would be antidemocratic because, as with the EU and Westminster, it would give local politicians the opportunity to say we can’t do that or we must do this because there is an agreement with another council.
Blick seemed unaware that doing all this would mean a great deal of extra cost both because each council would have to increase their staff to cope with the extra work and this would outweigh any saving made by central government through cuts to the civil services and greatly increased powers for councils would require full time well paid councillors.
All in all , a real dog’s dinner.
Graham Allen (Labour MP)
On his website Allen advocates this: “Devolution for England should be based upon local councils with the same statutory rights and tax assignment powers as those enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.” He repeated this view at the meeting.
Allen expressed contempt for Parliament, local government and the civil service, the former because too much power was with the executive; the latter two institutions because of the debilitating effect on local government and the civil service of centralisation.
According to Allen the problem with Parliament today was that MPs were reduced to cyphers. There are problems with the executive in Parliament, but to say ordinary MPs have no power or influence is clearly wrong. Where no party has a large majority the individual MP can have very considerable influence, both on their own party and on the opposition because their support or otherwise of their party really matters. Moreover, whether the parliamentary arithmetic is tight or not, MPs can have significant influence through assisting their constituents, asking Parliamentary questions and bringing matters to public attention.
Allen advocated devolution of powers to councils as a means of replacing what he saw as the inadequacy of Parliament with a newly vibrant and dynamic local government. He appeared to believe this would happen simply by changing the formal structure of government, a belief if childlike naivety. He also wants a written constitution to restrain the Westminster executive.
Lord Tyler (LibDem peer)
The man is a regulation-issue liberal internationalist who is vehemently against an English Parliament or even English votes for English laws. His reason? He claimed an English Parliament or even English votes for English laws would mean an English government within a federal structure. He made no meaningful attempt to explain that would be a bad idea.
Tyler is much keener on devolving financial power down to councils than the other two speakers and advocated more City Deal arrangements , a policy which has already placed billions of pounds in local hands.
Come questions, I began by saying I was appalled that all three speakers were embracing the Balkanisation of England by stealth. Having done that, I pointed out that in a true federal system there would be no major problem with conflicting politics between the four home countries because if full home rule was given to each of England, Scotland, Wales and NI, the policy areas which would be dealt with by the federal government would be few in number – defence, foreign affairs, the management of the pound, immigration, international trade and infrastructure projects which covered more than one of the home countries .
Consequently, the fact that England would be the dominant federal voice would not be oppressive or overwhelming because so much would be in the hands of the national parliaments. I ended by saying that the only lasting devolution settlement required an English Parliament because without it the mistreatment of England would be a never healed running sore.
The only comment I elicited from the speakers was a bald assertion that they were not engaged in Balkanisation by stealth. Hilariously they did not actually deny it was Balkanisation, merely said that what they were doing was not being done by stealth.
With the exception of myself and a few others, the questions raised by the audience were all predicated on the idea that centralisation is an evil in itself.
Many people will believe that that the proposals of Blick, Allen and Tyler are no more than hot, air. That would be foolish. The anomalous position of England in the present devolution arrangements will have to be addressed sooner rather than later regardless of how the Scottish independence vote goes. If the vote is YES, the massive difference in size and resources between England and the rest of the UK will become even more extreme. That will drive calls for English devolution, especially as Wales and Northern Ireland have no oil revenues to bargain with and rely very heavily on English taxpayers’ subsidy to maintain public services at their present level. . If the Scots vote NO, Scotland and Wales will get further powers and make the position of England ever more starkly different. Again the pressure for English devolution will grow. Therefore, the question is not whether there will be English devolution but what type of devolution Westminster will try to inflict upon England. As the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems are all resolutely opposed to an English Parliament, they will have to choose between regional assemblies and devolution to local councils.
Regional assemblies are most unlikely to be pushed again because of the humiliation of the last attempt under John Prescott when the referendum on a North East Assembly, arguably the area of England with the strongest regional identity, was resoundingly rejected with 78% voting no.
That leaves devolution to local councils. Consequently, Blick’s proposals will have legs because they fit with what the Westminster parties will feel most comfortable with, albeit as a least worst choice. Add in the fact that Graham Allen is chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the Commons and will act as an enthusiastic advocate of Blick’s proposals makes them, in some form, very probably the recommendation of the committee for English devolution when they make their report.
Robert Henderson 13 6 2014
Email to Andrew Blick 13 6 2014
Dear Mr Blick,
There were a considerable number of questions and observations which I was unable to raise or make at the Federal Trust meeting Devolution in England: A New Approach held on 10th June . Here are some of them.
1. The idea that devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is overwhelmingly seen as a success by the recipient populations is objectively false. For example, an ICM poll for the BBC in February 2014 found that 23% of Welsh voters questioned wanted the Welsh Assembly abolished and only 37% wanted greater powers for the Welsh Assembly.
Scots are more enthusiastic, but even there the support is less than ecstatic or universal. A YouGov poll on behalf of the Better Together campaign in January 2014 found that “ Thirty-two per cent of Scottish adults want devolution inside the UK, but with more powers for the Scottish Parliament… Scottish independence was the second most popular constitutional option, at 30 per cent, with the status quo of devolution as it stands today a close third at 29 per cent.”
I suggest you follow the local media in those parts of the Union to see how disillusioned people are, especially in Wales. You will encounter plenty of complaints about incompetence and extravagance, for example, the struggles of the NHS in Wales or the fiasco of the Edinburgh tram system .
2. The idea that decentralisation is a good in itself is a nonsense. For example, decentralisation in the NHS and social services has produced huge dissatisfaction because of the development of “post code lotteries” in those areas. Decentralisation of other powers to local authorities or even regional authorities would simply produce more of the same.
3. Pushing decision making down to local councils on the pick ‘n mix basis you suggest , with councils choosing from a menu of powers now exercised by Westminster with councils also free to make agreements with other councils to operate together, is inherently anti-democratic. It would produce a hotchpotch of local government regimens, which would leave voters even more confused than they are now, and allow councils to shuffle off responsibility for ignoring their voters’ wishes by saying their agreements with other councils meant that they could not do what the voters wanted. It would be the Britain/EU problem writ small.
4. The general quality of councillors is poor. If you want to see how poor I suggest you go to watch how planning applications for large developments are dealt with – councillors are completely out of their depth – and to council subcommittees . Let me give you an example. I live in Camden. Some years ago the council decided they wanted to place their entire council housing stock in an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO). The ALMO would have been a limited company (limited by guarantee) managing over 30,000 dwellings. Legally, this company would have been an extremely large public company and as such subject to company law. Serious directorial experience is needed to run a company of that size.
Thankfully the ALMO never happened because Camden were reckless enough to allow the tenants and leaseholders a vote on whether they wanted the transfer to an ALMO to take place. (The plan was rejected by over 70% of those voting). However, before the vote knocked it on the head, Camden set up a “shadow” ALMO board with the intention that the shadow board would become the actual board once the ALMO was created.
I went as an observer to every meeting of the shadow board. It was frightening to watch what was happening . There was only one member of that board who had any commercial experience and that only of running a small family company. The rest of the shadow board consisted of councillors, council officers, civil servants and the odd residents’ (tenants and leaseholders) representative.
The shadow board was self-evidently not capable of running a large limited company . One of the shadow board’s tasks was to agree the articles of Association of the ALMO. None of them had a clue what was going on. For example, they nodded through huge borrowing powers (a very risky proposition) for the prospective ALMO in a few minutes whilst spending around an hour debating whether an ALMO Board member could be disqualified if they were sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
5. The weakness of local government cannot be readily changed. When local government was strong in England, this was a consequence of a very different social structure from that which we have today and the considerable physical limitations on travel. Until the latter part of the 18th century , when scientific road building was introduced, English roads were dire. Movement over any distance was often impossible during the winter. But even when roads improved considerably , long journeys around England were still major undertakings. To travel by road from London to Edinburgh would take the better part of a week. This lack of mobility also helped to underpin the existence of what was a very stratified society, one stratified not primarily by wealth but inherited social position.
In such conditions of necessity power was devolved to the aristocracy and gentry , both informally and through formal power resting with state agents such as JPs (who had much wider powers than they do now) and Lord Lieutenants.
The railways changed things utterly and by 1880 rapid travel around Britain was possible. This began the decline of local government, slowly but inexorably. It was possible to be an MP and return to a far flung constituency in a matter of hours rather than days. Of course things did not change overnight because there was a social inertia propping up the status quo for a generation or two. But change things did and, aided by the growth of ever more sophisticated mass communications, local government steadily became less and less powerful, less and less independent of the Westminster Parties.
Today the Westminster dominance of politics is more or less universal at any level above the parish council. The Westminster parties at local level normally slavishly follow policies set by their national party’s leadership. Even if Westminster powers were devolved to local councils there is no reason to believe that national direction of policy by each major party would cease to drive the behaviour of their parties in local government. Nor is it reasonable to assume that other parties would arise to challenge the dominance of the Westminster parties at local level. There might be the odd council which was won by, say, a taxpayers party, but it certainly would not be a widespread phenomenon.
6. Devolving power means devolving money. That will increase the opportunities for fraud and increased opportunities for fraud always means increased fraud. (The massive increase in public contracts generated by the mania for privatisation has had precisely that effect).
7. Large scale devolution of powers now exercised by Westminster would require paid councillors because the amount of time needed for councillors to deal with a much wider range of duties would be too great to allow the job to be done on a part time basis with modest allowances and expenses to be paid. Nor would this necessarily be a matter of simply making the existing number of councillors full time. The volume of extra work might require more councillors.
8. The complaint raised about statutory instruments (SIs), namely, that Parliament cannot scrutinise them because of their number, is true, but the idea that greater scrutiny would happen at a lower level of government is fanciful. To begin with a large proportion of statutory instruments derive from the EU. These cannot be devolved because the EU requires legislation to be uniform in a member state. That means a large proportion of SIs could not be subject to such local development and scrutiny.
The SIs which arise from non-EU initiated Acts of Parliament could be developed at local level, but apart from any lack of ability amongst councillors, they would not have time to develop and scrutinise such SIs unless they became full time paid councillors.
9. The example given at the meeting of the USA and Germany as a decentralised states which are powerful to dismiss the objection that the devolution of powers to English local government would weaken England do not stand up to scrutiny. They are federal states which were formed from self-governing colonies in the case of the USA and from a menagerie of vastly different sovereign entities in the case of Germany. Federalisation in those cases was a centralising not a decentralising process. What you and the other speakers yesterday were proposing for England is the exact opposite.
The USA was founded on 13 colonies which had as their dominant culture that of England. Their foundations were English (at the time of the Revolution the historical section of the US census has 63% of the white American population as English by ancestry with a majority of the rest from other parts of the British Isles). They had not only a common language, but English Common law and English history to unite them. Indeed, the main complaint of the leading revolutionaries before and during the American War of Independence was that they were Englishmen being denied English liberty (this was their main propaganda message). The American Constitution was heavily based on the Bill of Rights and the political philosophy of John Locke and their prime propagandist was the Englishman Thomas Paine.
Germany has little history as a nation. It is formed of a large number of kingdoms, principalities, electorates, dukedoms, counties and city-states. Three of its components, Prussia, Bavaria and Saxony, have a history of being important kingdoms in their own right. Before the country’s unification in 1870 it was more of a cultural expression than a country.
10. The objections to an English Parliament were that they would result in an English government for the UK. These objections dissolve if there was a true federal system with each of the four home countries having full home rule with the federal govern dealing with a very restricted palette of policies: defence, foreign affairs, the management of the pound, immigration, international trade and infrastructure projects which covered more than one of the home countries.
In such a system there would be no need for any more politicians or buildings. All that would be required is for the House of Commons to become once again the English Parliament . The members of the four national Parliaments would form the federal Parliament, which could be held in Westminster. Something would have to be done with the Lords, either abolition or a transformation into a second chamber for England.
11. The effect of your proposals for England would be, as I said at the meeting, to Balkanise England by stealth. It would be by stealth because you are representing it as something other than Balkanisation.
12. The English wish to be masters in their own house. That means a national Parliament to provide both a focus for the English national interest and practical national direction for the country. Theb have a particular need for such a body at the moment because the mainstream political parties are intent on selling England down the river whether the vote on Scottish independence is YES or NO. See
NB I shall place any reply from Blick here.