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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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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear