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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 regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and 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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Can parliament force a government U-turn on the UK’s customs union membership?

Downing Street is trying to bully Conservative Remainers with the threat of letting in a Jeremy Corbyn government.

Nice precarious hold on power you’ve got there, Prime Minister. Shame if something happened to it.

Downing Street is insisting that there will not be U-turn on the United Kingdom’s membership of any kind of customs union with the European Union after we leave, as they face a series of defeats in the Lords and a possible defeat in a non-binding vote in the Commons on the issue.

As I explained on the Westminster Hour last night, while the defeats this week won't change government policy, they are a canary in the coal mine for the ones that can.

The nightmare for Theresa May is that, thanks to the general election, she faces a situation in which a majority of the governing party favours one approach to Brexit but a majority of the House of Commons favours another. 

The question is: what happens then? Downing Street is also pushing the line that the vote on the customs union will be a “confidence issue”, ie they are trying to bully Conservative Remainers with the threat of letting in a Jeremy Corbyn government. But, of course, thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, there is no such thing as a “confidence issue” outside a very specific motion of no confidence. Or, at least, there is no such thing as a “confidence issue” – which can bring about a new parliament.

May can make the issue one of confidence in her own leadership and resign if she is defeated, but, under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, that wouldn’t trigger a new election: merely an invitation by the Queen to another politician to form a government. And frankly, as far as the Commons arithmetic goes, “another politician” is far more likely to be Michael Gove than Jeremy Corbyn. The process whereby you get even the glimmer of a risk of a Labour government by voting to keep the United Kingdom in a customs union is altogether more complicated and lengthier than Downing Street would like to pretend.

But the problem for Conservatives in particular, and Brexiteers in general, is while they can change the Prime Minister, they can't change the parliamentary arithmetic. Whether the majority of Conservative MPs want it or not, a U-turn on the customs union may well be inevitable.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.