That was the idea dismissed this week in a front-page report in the Western Boring Views. Mark Berrisford-Smith, head of economics for HSBC UK Commercial Banking, told regional business leaders in Plymouth that negotiations over Brexit, and associated economic uncertainties, could pre-occupy Government for years, delaying other decisions, with the decentralisation agenda being one item moved to the back burner.
Of course, ministers could clear their desks of unnecessary distractions by pressing ahead with that agenda right now, but that sort of trust has never existed between central and local government and no amount of crisis will create it. Our diagnosis is that the sickness goes to the heart of the relationship. Earning central government’s trust should be no part of local government’s job; central government should exist solely as the obedient servant of the localities that elect it and if it fails them it should expect to be abolished forthwith. Wessexit.
So let’s not get too excited by the idea of devolution, Osborne-style. It’s not what we’ve campaigned for all these years. The Municipal Journal last week allowed Cllr George Nobbs, Leader of Norfolk County Council a page to share his frustration. Beneath a photo of the East Anglian flag and the headline ‘Killing off devolution’, he wrote:
“There is no more enthusiastic proponent of regional devolution than myself. I have supported the idea of moving powers from Whitehall to East Anglia all my adult life. When on Budget day the Chancellor announced a draft deal for East Anglia I nailed my colours to the mast in the most literal way, flying the flag of East Anglia from Norfolk County Hall. However, remarkably, the institutional arrogance of central government seems set to give us a deal that cannot be sold locally. As it stands not one of the three counties that make up the ‘Eastern Powerhouse’ look likely to be able to sell the current deal to members or residents…
The current ‘devolution deal’ was the result of a knee-jerk reaction to the Scottish referendum result and bears no resemblance to any other form of devolution in the UK, other than the insistence on the office of a London-style mayor for rural England…
The office of elected mayor is fine for London but universally opposed in shire county England. Senior government ministers have said time and time again that in the past devolution has failed because it was top-down. They had learned, they said. This would be bottom-up. We could design our own deal. We would be in the driving seat, they said. When we urged them to consider any alternative to an elected mayor (because we couldn’t sell it to our citizens) they said it was non-negotiable. ‘No mayor no deal’ was the answer. They were not even prepared to consider changing the one word mayor for another title.”
First it was Prescott, now it’s Osborne. You can have any colour of devolution you want as long as it’s black. So black you can’t see what’s going on. The mayoral model is non-negotiable because it’s part of a London-party consensus that values opaqueness above all. The democratic model, taking decisions openly, in full view of the press and public, and transparently, subject to the forensic examination of political debate in council chamber or legislative assembly, is judged not fit for purpose. End all the politics, we’re told. Actions, not words. But efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things, and without continual accountability it’s very easy both to do things wrong and to do the wrong things.
Next month, we’re told, we need to reject the unaccountable Brussels bureaucracy in favour of, well, what? How is accountability unfolding here? We need to put our own, British values first, apparently. Values like privatising our schools and our NHS, transforming them into profit centres far beyond any hope of democratic redress.
We’ve been told many times that the dissolution of English political unity would be too high a price to pay for the benefits regionalism brings, even if the regions reflect deep-rooted identities like Wessex and East Anglia. Yet the displacement of our historic shires by ‘Greater Lincolnshire’, ‘North Midlands’, ‘Tees Valley’ and other mayored innovations isn’t viewed as a problem. (Nor is it viewed as part of the ‘euro-plot’, as would any attempt to give England the regional governments now standard across all large west European countries.) As Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI, also writing in the Municipal Journal, noted, “The new rash of elected mayors for improbable geographies face some real challenges in getting noticed in any way at all.” That’s just it though. They’re not there to be noticed. A revolution in how England is governed is now underway as secret deals are lined up for sign-off. Personality mayors and commissioners for made-up areas will preside as local services are handed wholesale to global financial interests.
Do the public care? According to Ben Page’s data they do. Around half (49%) support the principle of decentralising local decision-making powers, with only 17% opposed. There are two main worries that are shared by 58% of those who don’t support devolution.
One is the spectre of ‘postcode lottery’ – the fear that services would start to vary between areas to an unacceptable degree (though it’s surprisingly acceptable for the Irish or the French to have different standards). Keeping the number of English regions well below double figures is one way to minimise this fear: the present hotch-potch of ‘improbable geographies’ is going to have to be sorted out sooner or later and the sooner the better. Another way is to make devolution real, so that regional politicians cannot blame Whitehall if they fail to match the standards of the best.
The second worry is that politicians in the provinces aren’t up to the job and so can’t be trusted with real power. That’s hardly surprising: real talent isn’t going to be attracted to run an ever-shrinking range of services subject to ever more intrusive interference from ministers and their civil servants anxious about poor performance. Breaking that vicious circle is easy. Tolerate responsibility through the ballot box, open up the opportunities and the talent will come. Or, to be more accurate, it will stay exactly where it is and not be lured to London.
If being locked indoors with the Tories is the best reason for opposing Brexit then a good second is that the debate has been framed in terms of sovereignty instead of subsidiarity and on those terms Brexit poses an unacceptable risk. That risk is that sovereignty regained will be sovereignty hoarded. All Europe needs a debate on what can be done closer to the people than it is today. Even if that means identifying things that are done too close to be done well – because there are some activities that can now only be effective on a scale beyond that of the classical nation-state.
It needs to be a European debate, not a British or English one, because only in the idea of a Europe of a Hundred Flags can small nations and historic regions achieve the recognition the nation-states are determined to deny us. We hear a lot about how the EU is a malignant conspiracy to destroy those nation-states and their historic identities long-forged in good old-fashioned lethal conflict. Michael Gove looks forward to ‘patriotic renewal’, while Jacques Attali fears another Franco-German war before the century is out. Meanwhile, the British State for which we’re supposed to boldly patrify shows how much it really cares about our identity, turning our ancient shires, the roots of our democracy, into clone-zones of the metropolis and topping each with its own little Caesar.