Thursday, November 01, 2007

Playing with fire

There has been a lot of hot air wafted about recently on the subject of the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Despite the fact that oil is now on the brink of $100 a bbl, support for independence in Scotland is falling rapidly.

Nevertheless a certain section of the English press is stirring things up. We see resentful headlines in the London Paper about supposed extra payments being made to the Scottish government merely because the long overdue investment in London's crossrail is finally taking place. The idea that Scotland is a whining subsidy junkie - indeed little more than a parasite on England- is gaining ground in England based on these wilfully misleading headlines.

Not surprisingly, support for English independence has risen, even last year reaching 30%.

Therefore the latest proposals from the Conservatives for addressing the supposed anomaly of Scottish MPs voting on English affairs is treading on very tricky ground.

This is not to say that no action is needed. In fact I and other Lib Dems would argue that major constitutional change is increasingly urgent. However the idea of the English Grand Committee does not address the real issue. Along with much else, local decision making across the UK was emasculated by the centralisation that began under Margaret Thatcher and came to full flower under Tony Blair.

Personally the answer to the West Lothian question is obvious: a federal Britain. The question though is whether either England should be a single entity, or that smaller units or regions are better. Many oppose federalism because they argue that regional government would be another, expensive layer of government. Yet a single English government, covering 50 million population seems so much out of line compared to Scotland with 5 million, Wales with 3 million and Northern Ireland with only 1.7 million.

Nevertheless it is undeniable that were the choice of a regional government was offered- in the North of England- it was rejected by voters. Nevertheless, I would argue that smaller units, rather than a single entity would put English affairs more firmly into the hands of the people it most affects. In Spain, there is no "one-size-fits all" federalism: several governments: La Rioja, Asturias, Murcia are based on a single county. My view would be to make the County the prime unit of English local government: the long history of each place makes local loyalties very strong. Many Counties have large populations: Surrey, for example has over a million people. Even smaller counties, such as Cornwall with about 500,000 still have substantial populations.

It strikes me that the grouping of counties on an ad hoc regional basis would happen anyway, if the need arose, but that it should happen in the traditional English evolutionary way.

At the end of the day, how the English rule themselves within the United Kingdom is a matter for the English people, but the problems that Malcolm Rifkind identifies are the result of too much centralisation. creating an English Grand Committee does not address that problem.

Fueling resentment with false stories of supposed Scottish profligacy, simply because the Scottish government chooses different policies that those imposed from Whitehall on England is the politics of the playground- and very dangerously negative.

Moving our government to a less centralised model is long overdue- having begun the process with devolution to Stormont, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, we must now turn to changes inside England and to creating a genuinely federal system of home rule for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland- and England or at least those parts of England that wish for it.

The unholy alliance of the SNP and some Conservatives who wish for the break up of the Union can be challenged and indeed beaten but it is time that our constitution received a major overhaul.


Anonymous said...

Constitutional reform based upon re-empowered Counties is a bold suggestion Cicero - a backward glance to the happier times of yore. Perhaps, we will make a good Shires Tory out of you yet?

If we turn the clock back far enough, you could be solid squire in the country - or perhaps (with a twist of 'other' Shires fantasy) a Hobbit-ish defender of the little folk?


Bishop Hill said...

Of course, there's no reason why the county shouldn't be the prime unit of Scottish government too. There is no earthly reason why a decision about education in Perthshire should be made in Edinburgh, any more than it should be made in London.

The problem with this idea is that a lot of people in the Labour and LibDem parties will need to get over their love of redistribution. If people saw the County scheme as just a way of disguising subsidies to Scotland it would be still-born.

You would have to have local taxes supporting local services.

Cicero said...

"Bishop" I tend to agree, and deplore the centralisation of power on Holyrood that Salmond and his cronies are inflicting on the country.

Wheatley- the Shire Tories are a pretty sickly bunch these days...

Anonymous said...

Cough, Cough...Anyway, given your latest rant about concreting over our green and pleasant land you no longer seem to qualify for Shire status.

'Catiline' Wheatley