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.