DISSATISFACTION with the constitutional status quo in the north of England is no flash in the pan, says Lesley Riddoch
Are campaigners in the north of England set to ask for more than George Osborne’s “northern powerhouse” proposals? The first meeting of a Northern Citizens Convention (NCC) was held this weekend in Huddersfield – an umbrella group explicitly modelled on the Scottish Constitutional Convention with academics, trade unionists, politicians, activists and two Ministers packed into the crowded venue.
The loose aim is to win the same powers as the Scottish Parliament – but there’s no agreement yet on the number of assemblies to be created and whether they would simply be beefed up metropolitan councils.
It’s easy to scoff at such indecision and forget our own past constitutional swithering – but the sheer size of “Northern England” is part of its problem. The region straddles three Euro constituencies: the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber. With a combined population of around 14.5 million it has more inhabitants than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – but it’s still just a region whereas Scotland is a nation. That difference is not just a technical nicety – Scotland’s time as an independent country forged distinctive languages, institutions and conventions all of which survived the Treaty of Union. As a result, there are Scottish ways of doing things understood across the constitutional divide, which have produced a welter of habits, comedy, literature, song, poetry, cartoons and visual art to express and reinforce Scottish identity.
The political importance of this rich, confident, cultural foundation is only apparent when you visit a region without almost any of it.
But lack of nationhood need not stop northern campaigners. Some of the 16 powerful Lander (regional governments in Germany) recreated after the Second World War were not previously nation states and Canada and Australia developed federal systems with state, territorial and provincial boundaries decided just as much on the grounds of good governance as historic nationhood.
So is powerful English regional self-government what George Osborne has in mind? Almost certainly not.
Worried about the Ukip threat and unfavourable comparisons with Scotland, the Chancellor moved to nip any momentum for devolution in the bud.
Devo Manc – as the £1 billion offer to ten Greater Manchester councils has been called – looks good on paper. Nick Pearce of the left leaning IPPR says it’s a “major new front” in the English devolution debate. But the decision to accept control over health and social care, transport, housing, further education, business and skills was taken by council leaders behind closed doors, the deal is “subject to spending review” and all areas are earmarked for massive cuts.
It also hinged upon the acceptance of an elected mayor, even though Mancunians rejected the idea along with eight other English cities in 2015 and of course it is highly selective, leaving other Northern conurbations, small towns and rural areas out in the cold.
According to the Manchester Evening News: “The Chancellor should not be allowed to force a system on the area that it hasn’t voted for.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Campaigners have started a petition for a Devo Manc referendum. If that’s ignored, the sense of grievance will only increase.
Meanwhile further east, Yorkshire First candidates got a measly 1 per cent in the general election, but almost 30 per cent in local elections and the group now has three councillors. It’s a start but what next?
The greatest difficulty is that the existence of local campaigns is currently obscuring the need for regional devolution.
The passionate but frustrated voices raised during Saturday’s meeting only served to emphasise the importance of national identity and territorial cohesion in the push for more powers in Scotland. How far would home-rule have got, if the Scottish Party and National Party of Scotland had not buried their differences in 1934 to form one party? And how far would the SNP have got if a party backing national self-determination had been forced to compete with stronger local/regional movements like Aberdeenshire First or Lothians Together in decades past? Indeed, how far will the north of England get without a party like the SNP which has always been ready to tackle Westminster parties not appease them?
Of course it could be argued Scotland’s powerful position within the union was largely achieved by Labour campaigners who committed the party to support the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) process in the 1980s and campaign for its outcome. After an equivocal position on the 1979 referendum, Scottish Labour were clear advocates of devolution by the time Tony Blair won in 1997. And even though the SCC was hardly representative or a mass movement by modern terms, its existence did allow the old building blocks of civic society with form, structure, membership, media clout and above all some cash to command the attention of Scotland’s media and political leaders.
So could the same happen in the north of England? Some activists at the NCC meeting were aghast that Labour council leaders couldn’t see the parallels with Scotland. The feeling – admittedly voiced only by some activists – is that they have rolled over to a second-rate offer from Tories while the Scots have obtained more by standing up to them. But then, Scots voted out every Conservative MP in 1997, while Tories won a quarter of seats in the North of England on 7 May.
Indeed there was no support at the meeting for describing the Northern Citizens Convention as a Campaign for Northern Government.
So the northern heather is not alight, but something is definitely crackling.
Billboards which portrayed Alex Salmond pickpocketing English people were a decidedly southern phenomenon – so too rattled swing voters deserting Labour.
The former First Minister’s enthusiastic reception during a Liverpool edition of Question Time last year was not a one-off. Nor was #takeuswithyouScotland, the Twitter hashtag, which calls for the North of England to secede from the UK and join Scotland along a line drawn from the Dee to the mouth of the Humber. That idea may have begun as a bit of joke, but 45,000 people have used it – some during this weekend’s massive anti-austerity demonstrations. In short, dissatisfaction with the constitutional status quo in the North of England is no flash in the pan.
George Osborne is right about one thing: the north of England is a powerhouse. When will its inhabitants awaken to that fact?