John Leonard: Is regionalisation of the UK the nightmare scenario for the Union?
In the recent thread - Ken Clarke To Recommend That MPs from Scotland and Wales Should retain the final say on English Laws which discusses the purported recommendations of the latest Democracy Task Force Report, this assertion amongst other similar ones was made:
"In the long run, regional government is the best way to save the Union."
If anything I believe that the political regionalisation of this country increases the risk of the break up of the nation. It is important to maintain the political concept of England as a whole. Maintaining the idea of a unified England is critical to the Union. Not to do so likely threatens the Union far more than anything currently being espoused.
By denying the political concept of the English Nation, the national identity will likely begin to fade and people will increasingly focus on other issues such as economic prosperity.
The Barnett formula is already at the forefront of the WLQ debate, so if regionalisation was fully implemented there is no reason to suggest that it would not continue to be an inflammatory issue.
The regional funding debate is likely to carry more resonance in a fully regionalised UK than it currently does in the WLQ, as much of the current debate (as espoused by the English Democrats for example) is based on false premises.
Given reports such as Regional Contributions to UK Finances 2004/05 from Oxford Economics and the annual Public Expenditure Statistical Analysis (PESA) reports from the ONS, the indications are that there are only three net contributing regions to the UK purse.
All the rest are subsidised to some extent by those three regions or by Government borrowing.
The three regions in question are London, the South East and Eastern regions. All generate more than they spend.
Effectively, this is London and its commuter belt. In 2004, this super-region raised an estimated 43% of the revenue generated within the UK with 35% of the population and only received 28% of the resultant direct public expenditure. In terms of Public expenditure (PESA ) the imbalances in public expenditure across the regions has remained virtually the same throughout the last ten years and only marginal differed from that position during the preceding ten years.
Hypothetically, who is to say that if real political regionalisation does become a reality, that a movement would not rise up espousing the unification of these three regions (and perhaps neighbouring regions) with some significant level of independence from the rest of the country?
After all such a separatist concept is not so far divorced from that of the SNP in regard to the Union. All that would be different is where the line would be drawn across the UK. Why should Scotland have exclusivity on such a concept?
In economic terms it makes far more sense for the South East. Whilst the economic viability of Scotland is dubious, the economic viability of the South East is far more certain.
It is not a hypothesis I relish at all. Indeed it is inconceivable from an English perspective to consider a world without England. However, if politicians continue to deny England its political identity both within Westminster and in Brussels how long will such a hypothesis remain inconceivable?
Such an alliance could extend to include the South West and East Midlands neither of whom consume large shares of public expenditure. It’s only in terms of wealth generated where they currently do not match their south easterly neighbours’ performance.
These additional regions offer the additional agricultural, defence and industrial capability that such an alliance would need. Given the potential general prosperity it would not be unreasonable that all the regions included could become profitable in the short to medium term.
From a geographical perspective, a divide along the Humber-Severn line is not hard to envisage. Such an alliance would be closest to the continent and, therefore, is in as good a position as any part of the UK to further advance its prosperity.
In terms of infrastructure, this super region has virtually all the necessary major hubs and transport links already.
From a political perspective (and unless the political landscape changes radically) there is much that is attractive to the vast majority of the affected electorate. It would likely be lead to greater political unity in the separated Super-Region.
Such a super-region already has low comparable expenditure in most areas and generates considerable wealth. Being free of the drain of the most uneconomic regions of Britain it would likely become extremely prosperous.
Being much smaller than the UK as a whole, it would likely also be far easier to manage efficiently.
How hard would it be for a separatist movement to convince the electorate of those regions that it would be in their best interests to follow such a course when their national identity has been consistently denied politically for decades?
Consequently, regionalisation may not be the rosy bureaucratic vision that pro-European Unionists might envisage. The Union of the United Kingdom will only survive if there is democratic parity amongst all the Home Nations and currently there is not.
In implementing the Democracy Task Force (DTF) recommendations, David Cameron needs to be extremely careful not to underestimate the strength of feeling in England or undermine the English brand. To do so, could create unforeseen complications that could have a far more drastic impact for this country than providing democratic parity for England ever will.
Paying lip service to the English, as the DTF report apparently does, is not the way to strengthen the English brand or the Union. A serious re-think is required.
In the adopting concepts of decentralisation and localism the Conservatives potentially have the answers to retaining and strengthening the Union in the long term. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the Conservative Leadership is yet able to develop coherent, efficient and consistent policies to achieve this goal.
Related link: John Leonard on why reducing the number of MPs would be bad for