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Devolution strikes back – but do Cornwall and Yorkshire want more powers . . . or just more money?

 If prospectors struck oil off the Falmouth coast tomorrow, I don’t see how anyone could blame the Cornish for rolling out barbed wire along the banks of the Tamar.

In the last weeks of the referendum campaign, I’ve been annoying my colleagues even more than usual. “What about Cornwall?” I pipe up. “If I lived in Cornwall, I’d be pretty pissed off with the current constitutional set-up, too.”

One of the defining themes of the independence debate has been how badly served many people in Scotland feel by the concentration of power in Westminster. “We didn’t vote for this Tory government!” said a succession of men draped in the Saltire on the news. “Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands”, went the title of Alex Salmond’s New Statesman lecture in March.

One obvious consequence of this anti-establishment fervour is that activists in the English regions have renewed their call for more powers. The devolution agenda – widely regarded to have stalled in November 2004 when voters rejected a north-east assembly – is back. And it’s not just in the big cities of the north, for which elected mayors are sporadically proposed. The rural regions also bridle at the thought of being governed by a “metropolitan elite”, which is the new way of saying “townies”. Think of the antipathy generated by the coalition’s proposed sell-off of the forests or the slow dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels. Many English people feel that their particular concerns are going unheard.

A few figures to illustrate the problem: James Ball, who leads the Guardian’s data blog, analysed the number of news stories in national papers that mentioned Scotland between 8 and 15 September. The tally for this year was 2,157 – up from 1,077 in the same week in 2013. James, being a proud Yorkshireman, repeated the exercise for his home county, which has roughly the same size population as Scotland. The result? A measly 469, down from 503. If you live outside the capital, the media take you for granted unless you threaten to bugger off.

No wonder regionalist parties are sounding off. On 1 August, an outfit called Yorkshire First launched its “Yorkshire pledge”, dem­anding devolution of “powers to the least centralised authority capable of addressing those matters effectively”. It points out that Yorkshire has an economy twice the size of Wales’s but far less powers. Fun fact: if Yorkshire had seceded from Britain and competed in the 2012 Olympics, its seven golds, two silvers and three bronzes would have put it 12th in the medal table.

There is a problem, however: where do you define Yorkshire’s borders? Even the Yorkshire First website gets its whippets in a twist: it claims an area of 22 councils, including two from Lincolnshire. A similar problem afflicts the Wessex Regionalist Party (WRP), which originally used Thomas Hardy’s definition but has since decided to annex Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, too. (Luckily, with a grand total of 62 votes in Witney, the only seat it contested in 2010, the WRP’s imperial ambitions are unlikely to become worrisome.) English devolution will always stumble because historically, unlike Germany, we don’t have clearly defined administrative boundaries.

But that is not an issue for Cornwall, which has a clearly defined geographic area. (“Lots of the Cornish think England should stop at the Tamar and ‘Kernow’ should be its own country,” a Cornish friend told me recently.) It also has specific troubles: it is the most deprived part of Britain after western Wales, according to Eurostat.

The poverty levels show that Cornwall is getting a bad deal from being part of the United Kingdom. If prospectors struck oil off the Falmouth coast tomorrow, I don’t see how anyone could blame the Cornish for rolling out barbed wire along the banks of the Tamar. As it stands, the region is heavily reliant on tourism, so there is no possibility of a successful independence movement – and therefore no chance of tweaking public spending to buy it off, as the Barnett formula did for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (That said, leaving Europe would have interesting consequences: Cornwall has received hundreds of millions in EU funding.)

What looks likely is further devolution - and here Cornwall has an advantage over more nebulous regions, because it already has a unitary authority, established in 2009, to which more responsibility could be given. The other option is a Cornish assembly, which the Liberal Democrats are squarely behind, for reasons that I’m sure have nothing to do with having three Cornish MPs with small majorities in seats where the Tories are in second place. (The three other parliamentary seats in Cornwall are held by Conservatives.) They judge, as Labour has done on the national scale, that when you don’t have any goodies to give away, you can always promise to give away power.

I asked Ian Saltern, an environmental project manager who moonlights on the cross-party campaign for a Cornish assembly, what such a body could offer. “Dydh da!” began his chirpy email back (Cornish for “Good day!”). Over the phone, he told me that the region needed more control over its housing, police, health, education and heritage policies. “The metropolitan mindset probably misses some of the unique problems that we have,” he said. “So much power has accrued to London and the south-east . . . and, you know, we don’t have a motorway – not that we’d necessarily want one, but that’s how far we are from London. During the floods, the news kept on about the ‘main train line’ between Cornwall and London. Actually, it was the only train line. And all the authorities coped really well. We think they could do that all the time, not just under emergency conditions.”

Over the next few years, Saltern’s theory is likely to be put to the test: after what we’ve seen in Scotland, the demands for devolution from the English regions will be hard to ignore. But they might well find that more powers are no substitute for something more concrete: more Treasury cash. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.