Federal Trust meeting: Devolution in England: A New Approach – Balkanising England By Stealth

Robert Henderson

Speakers

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.

Andrew Blick

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.

The future

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

https://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2014/03/15/scottish-independence-how-cameron-sold-england-down-the-river-with-the-edinburgh-agreement/

https://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/what-happens-if-scotland-votes-no-to-independence/

Yours sincerely,

Robert Henderson

NB I shall place any reply from Blick here.

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8 Responses to Federal Trust meeting: Devolution in England: A New Approach – Balkanising England By Stealth

  1. pippakin says:

    Reblogged this on Political Pip Spit or Swallow its up to You and commented:
    If Scotland, Wales and who could possibly forget Ireland can demand and be independent in there existing mass why does or should anyone suggest that England needs to be cut into some sort of false divisions? Could it possibly be to further weaken and feed off the decaying carcass of the English…

  2. You always mention the referendum in the North East, which failed for a number of different reasons, but never the 50,000 signature strong petition, supported by various opinion polls, calling for a Cornish assembly. I could also mention the recent results of Yorkshire First who out polled in the English Democrats in the EU elections.

    • Antony says:

      Traitors abound when they think a ship is sinking. So-called Cornish nationalists’ daydreams are always financed by those they profess to hate. They betray their own [‘Cornishmen’ are little more than superannuated English second-homers on the lookout for a payday from Brussels and who don’t care who they sacrifice to get it]. There are many quietly committed groups funded by Brussels – Common Purpose for example – working day and night to wreck our country. Perhaps your own agenda is not dissimilar.

  3. david brown says:

    Your Headline encapsulates the true intention perfectly . They of course want anything but the one thing which would matter an English Parliament .They will try and sell this in the liberal left media as strengthening local democracy when its real intention is to take it away from the English people. How much are the proponents of this going to profit from it?

  4. scarecrow78 says:

    Here’s an interesting (if odd) blog that seems to be trolling the anti-England message so beloved of some in the media.

    http://englanddoesntexist.blogspot.co.uk/

    At least I think it’s a troll…

    • Danny McKenna says:

      He (well, it’s probably a he) is just an attention-seeking lefty Nazi, I think. Needs a proper job to go to.

  5. Pingback: All you could ever want to know about Scottish independence | England calling

  6. I like the idea of smaller countries – they are usually better run and governments are more answerable to smaller communities. So I want to see more secession precedents. On the other hand I absolutely loath this slippery socialist Salmond creature – he is a liar and a con-man. But, if the Scottish independence result is “No” I’d like to see the UK federalised into 12 states. 3 of those will be Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland. The other 9 will come from England whose population of 53 million + is far too many for a single centralised state. I propose England be divided into its 9 natural divisions, which are Lancastria (NW), Northumbria (NE), Yorkshire (N.Central), East Mercia, West Mercia (Midlands), East Anglia, Wessex (SW), the SE region (to be named) excluding London, and finally London itself, the only part which doesn’t fit neatly into this plan, being much more populous than the other proposed states, most of them having about 5 million pop’n.

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