The debate in the UK regarding devolution, is in a bit of a mess. Three separate processes are rumbling on for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each at a different speed. Calling the situation within England a “process” would be overly generous. Last year, George Osborne announced plans to establish a Greater Manchester Combined Authority (quickly and inevitably dubbed “DevoManc”). This body was negotiated in secret between Manchester council groups and George Osborne himself, and seems to offer us little in the way of a model that might be adopted for other areas. Demands for devolution to the English regions, or even an English Parliament, have yet to result in anything tangible.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have committed themselves to the creation of a constitutional convention to tie these threads together and form a more cohesive process. But aside from the need to have such a common line, what approach should it adopt?
As part of our ConstitutionUK project, we have been exploring various models of devolution. Broadly, there appear to be two alternatives the UK might adopt: a big bang, federal model, established over a relatively short period of time; or an evolutionary, multi-speed approach, with various parts of the UK moving along at their own pace.
“Big bang” federalism has several things going for it in terms of consistency and simplicity. If tidiness were our top concern, it would be the automatic choice. However, it is clear that the nations in the UK are all at different places right now; marshalling them all into a “one size fits all” may result in a stalemate as, effectively, the process will have to go at the speed of the slowest participant.
A multi-speed approach avoids that, but presents its own challenges, and greatly increases the scope for confusion. Of course, in effect that is what we have right now. But it could be made more systematic, and the power to initiate the process of devolving powers could be taken out of the hands of Westminster (what Nick Clegg has dubbed “decentralisation on demand”). So, rather than spelling out the precise powers nations, regions and local government should have, our new UK constitution could simply detail the process by which those bodies might acquire such powers. Such an approach would be more along the lines of the constitution of Spain and its “autonomous communities” compared to, say, the United States.
The elephant in the room is what to do with England. Should it be treated as another nation state, alongside Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, despite it having more than five times the population of the other nations combined? Does replacing a parliament with responsibility for over 64 million people with a parliament with responsibility for over 53 million people even count as devolution, as far as the day-to-day lives of people are concerned?
So should we split England into regions which, when it was tried, came to a grinding halt with the referendum for a North East assembly in 2004? Or should our attention be more directly on local government? The focus in Westminster recently has been on the latter, and more specifically on “city regions”. But that still leaves significant questions to be answered over what should happen in the bits of the country which cannot reasonably be regarded as part of a conurbation.
These are thorny questions on which we are looking for people’s views over the next few weeks. Our community has already come up with dozens of suggestions we would like your response to. In this case (if in no other) you are very much encouraged to vote early and vote often!