Lesley Riddoch: English devolution good for us both

Picture: TSPL

Picture: TSPL

‘PERHAPS the SNP should field a candidate at Eastleigh?”

The quip during last week’s BBC Question Time by Humza Yousaf was brave, coming in the wake of an audience cheer for “sending nuclear waste to Scotland” the week before.

But maybe an SNP by-election candidate is precisely what English politics needs to kick-start progressive debate and create fertile ground for the Devo Plus Plan B any new Scottish government must pursue should the 2014 independence referendum fail.

Supporters of Devo Plus, tax and spend powers within the UK, currently face a large problem beyond the option’s non-inclusion on the ballot paper – Scots would be reliant on London-based political parties and Westminster to deliver. They in turn are largely reliant on English voters heartily sick of perceived “special pleading” by Scots and “kid glove treatment” by successive UK governments.

David Cameron has talked tough in Europe and won. So English voters may be wondering why he doesn’t adopt the same tactics with the “whingeing Jocks”. It’s hardly an atmosphere conducive to Devo Plus negotiations in 2015.

Even if Labour wins the general election by ousting Messrs Cameron and Clegg, Ed Miliband may hesitate to further bend the rules of Britain so just one area can raise the lion’s share of its taxes and collect all oil and gas revenues. Ironically, Devo Plus really upsets the UK apple-cart - losing the Scots just lightens it.

Admittedly, an English constitutional revolt looks unlikely. English voters seem largely happy with policies Scots largely want to scrap. The English electorate (alone in Europe) accept first-past-the-post voting for national elections. The majority support a government prepared to evict thousands of disabled people at a net cost of millions via the bedroom tax, accept the need for a marketplace in health and education and a nuclear deterrent.

Basically, despite daily evidence of corruption, lies and greed at the heart of the machine, English voters still believe in a winner-takes-all world financed by economies of scale in which wealth trickles down to the dispossessed (albeit with a bit more regulation) and are willing to waste time breathing life into un-resourced localism as a sop for London-favouring policies that are wrecking the wider English economy.

As a result, English voters are still willing to tolerate distant, centralised government on every aspect of domestic policy by a bunch of (mostly) men, in a city hundreds of miles away which struggles to remember anywhere else really exists. They say England is no longer a “faith-based” society, and yet blind faith and hard work at community level is all that’s keeping English society afloat.

Of course, Scotland is no social democratic nirvana – according to the Jimmy Reid Foundation, 70 per cent of Scots live on less than £24,000 a year while only 3 per cent of “influencers” do. Politicians on both sides of the border fail to include or represent the majority.

But the average Scot can generally see what the average English voter cannot. Protecting the over-heated south-east is wrecking Britain. That alone explains the crazy policy of capping housing benefit and shifting “under-occupying” tenants to (nonexistent) one-bedroom homes at great expense.

Last week, property firm Savills used 2011 census data to show London house prices have risen 15 per cent since 2007 – a rise larger than the value of all housing in the north-east of England.

Put another way, London’s top ten boroughs have a property value equal to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland combined.

Such a skewed economic machine with a sole powerhouse cannot deliver for Scotland – but it’s not good for Wales, Northern Ireland, the rest of England or the quality of life in London either.

And yet – who in England is complaining? I know “regional” voices have been raised, but they are easily dismissed, as “regional” Scots during the long reign of Margaret Thatcher. The solution for England is the one every other European country of its size adopted long ago – powerful regional policy with beefy, tax-raising devolution.

Currently, that’s not on the cards. Since the Geordies’ lukewarm response to John Prescott’s powerless assembly in 2004, English devolution has looked like a dead duck, lying stiffly beside UK-wide voting reform after the AV debacle. But false starts and rebuffs didn’t deter Scots.

English voters will back reform unless they differ profoundly from all their neighbours. The only question is when – and the warm words from David Cameron currently whizzing northwards over English heads could act as a catalyst.

“Scots can take decisions … to meet the specific needs of Scotland … without losing the benefits of being part of the UK. Scotland has a system of government that offers the best of both worlds.”

If I heard that in Lancaster today, I’d feel cheated. If I couldn’t see English devolution as an answer (and neither Ed Miliband nor Nick Clegg has championed action to tackle England’s democratic deficit) I’d feel anti-Scottish instead. It’s easier.

So 2014 leaves English voters with options. Progressive voices could call for English devolution. Hostility could encourage more Scots to vote Yes. “Heads in the sand” could leave the unhappy ship Britain limping on “together” for another decade of under-performance and social breakdown until Scots are ready to jump ship next time around.

No Taxation without Representation has long been the cry against Westminster’s centralised way of doing things. The complaint is as valid today as it was for Americans 250 years ago – but the folk currently most short-changed by damaging policies are the English majority outside the M25 bubble. When will the English Patient awaken?

Most nations with powerful devolution short of independence are not a difficult exception but part of a rational system. So if there’s a No vote next year, Scotland’s chances of negotiating a better deal will depend on the appetite for change in England.

Last week the Scottish Government published its response to a possible No vote – basically “game over”. Alex Salmond wants to dispel talk of a “neverendum” but if voters reject independence, they still want more power exerted in Scotland and will expect the next Holyrood government to get it.

Ironically, a talented SNP candidate in Eastleigh might be the only way to guarantee profile for English devolution and thereby lay the groundwork for the Devo Plus settlement post-2014 Scotland may soon demand.




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