Will the Severn Bridge become an international border, too? Photo: Getty
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Operation disintegration: has the Scotland debate made regional parties smell blood?

Time for a separate Cornish state, or an English First Minister? How about a breakaway Wales, or resurrecting Wessex? The UK's regional parties reflect on what the Scottish independence debate means for them.

Only a few weeks ago many were convinced Scottish independence was a impossibility. But a shock YouGov poll at the weekend that put the Yes campaign in the lead for the first time, published by the Sunday Times, has meant everyone is waking up to the idea that the people of Scotland could very well choose to leave the UK on 18 September. The other regionalist parties of Great Britain are particularly keen observers.

“There is a growing recognition that the extremities [of the UK] are beginning to move away,” Richard Carter, leader of the Yorkshire First party, tells the New Statesman. “But independence is the wrong solution – an argument about borders doesn’t make sense in our interconnected world.”

Yorkshire First was only set up in March of this year, but two months later it won over 19,000 votes in the European elections in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Clearly it has managed to capture the anti-Westminster, localist mood that has become prevalent across swathes of the UK.

The far more established Plaid Cymru, which, in the long term, seeks full independence for Wales, are watching the referendum intently. Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, is currently in Scotland helping out with the Yes campaign. She tells the New Statesman: “What’s incredibly interesting is that the Yes campaign is a truly grassroots movement. People are really informed – I’ve never seen this level of engagement before. Chatting to taxi drivers about polls in the FT is a common experience!”

Wood is partly there to see what tactics she can take back to Wales. She highlights the cross-societal aspect of the Yes campaign as particularly effective: “There’s been a deliberate attempt to have people involved who aren’t aligned with political parties. It’s not just the same old characters.”

The Scottish referendum is being greeted with similar interest by Dick Cole, leader of Mebyon Kernow, a centre-left party that campaigns for a National Assembly for Cornwall: “What’s happening in Scotland gives us hope, even though we’re campaigning for devolution, not independence. For us, it’s about getting some devolution to the Cornish people – at the moment where there is devolution, it’s to LEPs [Local Enterprise Partnerships] and quangos, and that’s not very democratic.”

Cole has also recently been on a trip to Scotland: he was invited to speak on the implications of the referendum at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. He likewise came back surprised by how involved so many Scots are. “The impression I got was that there’s such an engaged debate, and we’re really jealous of that.”

Membership enquiries for the Wessex Regionalist Party are on the increase, according to general secretary David Robins. “It’s affecting us very positively. Scottish independence will cause a rethink of British politics – whichever way it goes, we feel we’ll be able to benefit from it.”

The Wessex Regionalist Party, formed in the Seventies, campaigns for powers to be devolved from Westminster to Wessex, an area it defines as the southwest of England, excluding Cornwall, but including Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. “I don’t think we’d ever want independence,” Robins says. “We value the English context.”

The most dramatic sentiments come from Robin Tilbrook, chair of the English Democrats, a party that once campaigned for the establishment of an English Parliament and First Minister in imitation of the Scottish and Welsh models. It now fights for England to become an independent country – “over time we’ve become jaundiced at the idea the UK could be reformable as a proper democratic country.”

Tilbrook, a practising litigation solicitor, says that the dissolution of the Act of Union, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland in 1707, would mean not just that Scotland left the UK, but that the UK would no longer exist. “As a lawyer it makes no sense to speak of the UK if Scotland leaves.” The 1801 Acts of Union, which joined Ireland to Great Britain, would also become invalid: “Great Britain was a term invented to include Scotland, legally and linguistically.”

“The referendum debate certainly justifies much of what we've been saying,” he says, happily. “England will be almost independent as a consequence of this, although the union with Wales isn’t dissolved.”

Tilbrook has also been on the lookout for Yes campaign tactics that could be used by the English Democrats. “A couple of their supporters gave £5m to the Yes Campaign,” he says, referring to Chris and Colin Weir, before continuing with a chuckle: “If we had £5m, that would do no end of good.”

Alexander Woolley is a freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter as @alexwoolley4.

Photo: Getty
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The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.