An article by Neil Hughes
If it were only Britain wanting to depart from Europe, or Scotland’s own discrete independence-seeking one could – as a faint consolation – look to an England which is at least notionally united.
However even this is no longer the case with the principal next-tier locus of disconnection lying between North and South. Here something that has always existed has opened up insidiously into a major rift, highlighted in the June Brexit referendum. Inevitably a major capital city like London, lying closer to the rest of Europe than other parts of the UK, will possess pre-empting advantages; should this automatically and necessarily infer, however, that half or more of the UK’s trade and wealth-accrual needs to be based in and around it?
In time, a formal ‘Brexit’ may of course set back SE England as much as its other regions, not a levelling-down of the kind Lib Dems (or anyone) would especially desire! Of as much concern is the billowing social separation which means that the majority of major conferences, nationally significant public meetings, business and charity AGMs, political executive committee meetings (all parties except self-evidently Celtic nationalist & Ulster-based ones) and most strategic thinking either happen or begin to happen in London. Despite (equivocal) city deals this leaves the north, west, east and Midlands of England – as well as the devolved nations – poorer not only financially but socially, academically and culturally too. For example, it has always been a ‘given’ that London’s West End gets the best shows – but should it automatically?
How can Liberal Democrats seriously start to address this divide? Past policy and consultation papers offer plausible, though possibly not trenchant enough, solutions. For example Facing the Future (2010) sought to ‘improve the competitiveness of British business’ without alluding to inter-regional inequality. Wealth was to be re-distributed; though not on any geographical basis. Whilst the English dimension of devolution does receive a brief mention the paper then quickly moves on to international issues!
Its predecessor ‘broad-brush’ paper Make it Happen (2008) did go a little further, and includes the sentence “There are marches and protests all the time about the NHS, but they’re ignored because the local officials aren’t accountable, and the elected minister is miles away in Westminster.” Within the same document, however, can be found an ominous ‘Orange book’ precursor of Coalition financial parsimony: “If there’s money to spare, we won’t simply spend it.” Needless (though sadly poignant) to have to add, a promise that “ ..people will be able to take charge of local health services in England, standing for election in their own community” never made it to the statute books. Instead we had the Health and Social Care Act, 2012.
Political and Constitutional Reform (2013) – perhaps a little belatedly since by then proposals such as AV and House of Lords reform had already failed – did look (p13) at “fiscal federalism”, distinguishing cautiously between the latter and “fiscal autonomy”. It quotes the Steel commission’s (2006) conclusion that “no industrialised countries have opted for full fiscal autonomy. The reason for this is clear: to do so strikes against the principle of unity within states that sees an element of redistribution between areas with different levels of income and wealth.” The concept expressed here is a traditionally equitable liberal (Democrat) one: although regional – and local – autonomy across mainstream policy areas is ultimately essential there is also a need for any central government to address regional inequality. Powerful and persuasive two-way argument though this is it must beg the question: where does this leave us now under a Conservative government that, with only minor changes, may still be holding office via highly centralised reins of power for years? And with partial ‘so-called’ devolution which explicitly favours those few already economically ambitious parts of England (mainly city regions and combined authorities) which aspire – doomed even so to failure – to compete with London? And with Britain too heading towards leaving that one international body that possibly could even things up, the European Union?
Earlier Lib Dem policy papers (e.g. The Power to be Different, 2007) had spoken of local taxation and indeed of city regions (4.5, p22). There was, however, no suggestion that the latter should be a self-standing tier of local or regional government, or that they should replace elected councils or assemblies. The text simply states “City- regions can be created voluntarily by consenting councils. Liberal Democrats would give (them) the right to demand devolution of services from central and regional government, such as powers and funding relating to transport infrastructure.”
Even if Theresa May pressed to abolish elected mayors as a passport to formal local authority joint decision-taking, surely we as Liberal Democrats should re-examine our own (better) earlier proposals such as that immediately above? The same paper re-emphasises the need for a re-balancing of central-local public fundraising, an idea the party ran successfully with for years.
Somehow we need to give the north ( by which, by implication, I also mean the west, east and Midlands: everywhere that is not London and the south-east) some window of economic hope which the results of this year’s June 23 referendum already show that it no longer has.
We could do much worse than re-visiting and re-debating some of the energetic ideas within one or two of the policy papers I’ve referred to already.