Henry Hill: The implications of London devolution
Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
Boris calls for London rule
A couple of weeks ago, Boris Johnson came out in favour of a devolved settlement for the capital comparable to that of Scotland, to allow the city to better exploit and enhance its unique economic strength. If such a plan were to go ahead, London would become the largest devolved entity in the UK by population, with 8.2 million citizens against Scotland’s 5.3 million.
Johnson is right to point out that it is in keeping with the pattern of metropolitan governance seen in places like America, where city-level government can be a very powerful force. For Londoners, one can see the appeal of keeping more of the wealth the city generates inside its borders, allowing both for lower taxes and an equivalent or higher level of spending from city hall.
The proposal is timely, too, as it comes at a time when unionists are starting to face up to the challenges of stabilising the constitutional settlement set in motion by Labour in 1998. The need to resolve the tensions between how different parts of the UK are government – which really ought to have been tackled as they were introduced – means that various devolutionary models that might not have been properly considered before are going to be debated.
In that context, where does the idea of devolution for London fit into the debate? For starters, it might inject some new life into the Coalition’s hope of extending the idea of powerful city government out of the capital. As the London mayoralty acquires more power and Londoners can be seen to be exercising more direct control over their city, it might help to persuade others like Birmingham and Manchester to think again about retaining the current, council-led model.
Yet more importantly, devolution for London complicates the entire post-referendum devolution debate because it represents a revival of the idea of regional assemblies, Labour’s attempt to resolve the West Lothian Question by introducing devolved government to England on a regional basis.
Supporters of regional assemblies maintain that English-level “devolution” doesn’t actually bring power appreciably closer to the people, and that besides which the regions of England are too vastly divergent in economic and political outlook to be lumped together in anything purporting to be a localist, rather than explicitly nationalist, scheme. English nationalists think that assemblies “balkanise” England and insist on equal treatment with the other components of the UK based on identity, rather than population or economic homogeneity.
Whichever side you prefer, there’s not been much life in these proposals since they were rejected by the North East in a referendum. Yet if a demand for devolution rises in London it’ll bring the whole idea back to the forefront of the debate. After all, London MPs will suddenly face the same ‘West Lothian Question’ as their Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish colleagues.
It would also do much to undermine the viability of an English parliament. After all, if London did get a substantial devolution settlement there would be precious little room, if any, for an additional division of responsibilities between City Hall, Westminster and wherever a Parliament of England ended up. You’d have London MPEs, if they existed, voting on a really tiny stratum of issues (whilst being full-time and properly salaried, in the modern devolutionary tradition). Tidy, nationally-based Westminster compromises, such as “English votes for English laws”, would also end up looking less-than-final, “rest of English votes for rest of England laws” lacking the same ring.
With London charting its own course, it might again provide a motivation for other regions to take a second look at the idea of taking more of their governance into their own hands, to cater to their own economic and social circumstances and preferences. London might end up actually leading the revival of the regional assembly concept. Perhaps New Labour ought to have started there.
The darker side of nationalism - another view
Last week, I wrote about the darker side of Scottish nationalism. Although most of what I cover here is nationalism in the high political sense, of constitutional debates, political parties, and so on, it is well worth remembering that underlying much (not all) nationalism is an unpleasant mind-set – a mind-set which many may never have the misfortune to encounter first hand from the wrong side. Aside from the odd encounter during my time in Dublin (from whence I am now safely returned), I’ve not encountered too much of it myself.
So I’d encourage you all to read this excellent piece in the Scottish Review about an aspiring teacher’s first-hand experience of nationalism when she tried to start her career in Scotland after studying for her degree and professional qualifications in England. To her surprise and great dismay she found that she – and many similarly ‘foreign’-trained teachers besides – were effectively locked out of teaching in Scottish state schools. Eventually she had to take a job in London, whose cosmopolitanism she favourably contrasts.
The suggestion here is not that all nationalists are xenophobes, lest somebody leap furiously to that conclusion in the comments. Instead it’s another reminder that although the referendum debate is currently bogged down into a series of close-range fire-fights over technical matters – shipbuilding, savings, Olympic prospects, you name it – they really aren’t the point, compared to whether Scots feel that the English, Welsh and Northern Irish are foreigners or not. The UK is, after all, supposed to be a country rather than a contract.
(Incidentally, Kate Clanchy makes a good case for Michael Gove’s freeing of schools and teacher training from central control. Assuming the bigots she encountered are unrepresentative of broader Scottish nationalism, a decentralised system prevents such people from acquiring disproportionate influence. I’m certain that, had Gove’s system existed in Scotland, Clanchy would have been able to find employment at a Scottish free school.)
Display the Prince of Wales’ regalia
Following Her Majesty’s new Scottish portrait, some in Wales are also keen to emphasise the British monarchy’s links with the smaller home nations. Welsh Conservative heritage spokesperson Suzy Davies has called for the regalia of the Prince of Wales to be disinterred from the St James’s Palace cupboard they’re currently mouldering in and put on public display in Wales, to commemorate the upcoming 45th anniversary of Charles’ investiture in 1969. Sounds like a fine chance to raise public awareness of the monarchy and put it to some use at the same time.