Kenneth Clarke’s latest efforts to “solve” the West Lothian Question tells us much about the determination of the leaderships of the main political parties in the UK to avoid the obvious answer. If at the same time as devolving power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we had devolved power to the regions of England, then this debate would be taking place after nearly a decade of English regional government. The West Lothian Question would have long ago evaporated into thin air. Every Member of Parliament from every part of the United Kingdom would only be voting on national questions and people in the regions and localities would by now have been well practiced in controlling the majority of their own affairs.
Unfortunately other than paying off some debts of honour to the legacy of John Smith, the two massive landslide majorities of the Labour governments were not used to take on the issue of devolving power to England through its regions. Of greater concern is that despite the potential for a new start under a new Prime Minister last year, Gordon Brown has yet to take on this issue as a defining part of a clear mission for his Labour government. This is surprising as he spoke so powerfully and eloquently about the democratic agenda in his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister, and made a promise of a Constitutional Renewal Bill the only legislative commitment of his leadership campaign. Unfortunately that last commitment has dribbled away due to lack of political follow through and now revolves around debates about the tented encampment on Parliament Square or largely obscure facets of the Royal Prerogative. The current Constitutional Renewal Bill may sadly find itself reported under the Trades Descriptions Act.
However, there is still time to set an exciting new agenda and create the fundamental democratic reforms which should be one of the key missions of the Brown government and distinguish it from its predecessor. Placing subsidiary-making decisions at the lowest appropriate level – at the heart of government is key.
Creating small, nine-member, regional executives, elected proportionally to the general election result, so that one party will only very rarely control a region, is something that needs to be central to that agenda. Freeing regions to innovate in health, transport, planning and policing will release the best talent and practice, currently bottled-up in the most over-centralised state in Europe.
The West Lothian Question was always a device to try and reduce the impact of devolution. The democratic answer it to follow through with devolution genuinely devolving power to the English regions, and equally importantly, ensure we have independent local government. That will also give radicalism and clarity to Labour’s mission and give the Brown government an exciting initiative, seizing the public imagination and rallying Labour supporters and members of parliament behind a positive reason to fight for a fourth term.
Graham Allen is Labour MP for Nottingham North