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Brokering democratic change: the possibilities of English devolution with a Scottish accent

The regions of England and Wales should take a leaf out of the SNP's book.

Democratic revival in Scotland was galvanised by the simplicity of a yes/no referendum last September, but it has reverberated right through into the General Election campaign. The people of Scotland, having rejected independence, have nonetheless swung in droves behind the Scottish Nationalist Party, who now could be king-makers come May the 8th. But what price might they exact for their votes?

There is little doubt that the SNP will want to lock down and then extend the devolution deal hammered out in the Smith Commission, and although Nicola Sturgeon has said that SNP MPs will now vote on English matters, it it is unlikely that their demands immediately after an election will stray too far beyond Scottish affairs. But increasingly, the SNP is seeking to lead a bigger debate about decentralisation across the British Isles, making common cause with others who want to drag powers out of Westminster. We saw this with Sturgeon's 'friendship' speech at the SNP conference this weekend, where the First Minister sought to break bread with progressive English MPs and voters.

Beyond all the bluster of the election campaign, the nationwide prospect of securing a constitutional settlement to bring British democracy into the 21st Century is coming into view.

At IPPR North we have long-advocated the idea of ‘asymmetrical’ or ‘multi-speed’ devolution. In many respects Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and to a lesser degree London - have been given a 15-year head start. But this incremental approach is taking hold in England too. The ‘City Deals’ of 2011/12 have now paved the way for bigger ‘devo deals’ with Greater Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds city regions. All of the mainstream parties are now advocating more of the same.

The Conservatives who have pioneered this deal-making approach have effectively set up an open door policy for English devolution for any local authorities prepared to unite their collective capacity under a directly-elected mayor. Labour appears to prescribe less conditionality around their £30bn package of devolved funds for economic development but exercises much more caution around devolving public services, while the Liberal Democrats are offering ‘devolution on demand’. None of these represent anything like the level of devolution offered to Scotland, not least because there is very little for England by way of the powers to raise and spend tax revenues.

Herein lies the opportunity for the SNP to inject Scotland’s democratic energy into the English debate. What if, in the name of a UK-wide federal settlement, the SNP were to hold out for a more generous devo deal for England? What if Sturgeon and Alex Salmond were to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the city leaders in England and Northern Labour MPs who have for a long time wanted more power outside London? Salmond’s enthusiasm for starting high-speed rail 2 between Edinburgh and Newcastle represents just such a cross-border offer. And what if – in the turbulence of an unclear election result - the people of England were to seize their devolutionary moment too?

So what might be on the table? It should be taken as read that the best that the mainstream parties currently have on offer would be set as a baseline: a devolved £30bn plus economic development pot; unringfenced and five-year funding allocations for joined-up public services; and a much bigger proportion of business rate revenues. All with very few strings and loopholes. But there are three areas where any deal making could go a lot further.

On fiscal autonomy, the Smith Commission makes provision for Scotland to have greater control over income tax, to retain a proportion of VAT and to have extended borrowing powers. It devolves control over a number of key benefits such as housing benefit (including power to get rid of the so-called “bedroom tax”) and the ability to make discretionary welfare top-ups. And it gives control over other important economic tools such as air passenger duty and the Work Programme. Many English counties and cities look enviously at such powers, and are starting to chalk up demands to run employment programmes, take control of Housing Benefit, and gain new fiscal powers. Those demands should be met.

One of the most difficult issues upon which English devolution so often falters is the form that it should take. What level of government are we devolving to? Right-sized, unitary and combined authorities but with dynamic neighbourhood and parish councils should be the aim with a clear process and timetable for their formation and penalties for those determined to cling to empty vessels. In Scotland, local government is elected by proportional representation. Liberal Democrats, Greens and Labour reformers would welcome that in England too.

Proportional Representation (PR) for English local government could be part of a three-way Lab-Lib-SNP democratic reform package, along with votes for 16-year olds – the vote young Scots had in the referendum and will get in Holyrood elections -  and a federal senate to replace the House of Lords. And what of a proper constitutional settlement with the same promises now made to Scotland for a permanent parliament and government also extended to English (and Scottish) local government, once and for all.

But let us remember that what gives the SNP clout is not simply the careful strategy of Sturgeon and Salmond but much more the support of the Scottish public who – in turning out in their masses during the independence campaign – now have all the parties queueing up to placate their devolutionary demands. English voters should take note. Political alternatives in the regions of England are few and far between, but where we find common interest in bringing powers closer to home we too should speak up for English devolution and adopt more of a Scottish accent in our politics.

Ed Cox is Director at IPPR North. He tweets @edcox_ippr.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle