Having attended last Wednesday’s IEA sponsored panel discussion in rainy Westminster (Whitehall, town hall and the four nations – who should run what?), it is safe to say that the decentralisation brigade are still banging the same old drum – and still flatly refusing to engage in any meaningful discussion on any possible alternatives.
In a debate that was, on the surface at least, intended to explore the bigger picture of devolution in the UK, one went away from the event with more questions than answers. What is apparent however is that, come what may, there is a section of influential society that are intent on creating autonomous regions within England – in such blinkered and single minded fashion as to be borderline cultists!
Isabel Hardman, Assistant Editor of the Spectator and chair for the evening, gave an early indication of what was in store with her opening pitch, which roughly followed the synopsis provided by the events description on the IEA website:-
The UK is one of the world’s most centralised countries when it comes to the division of powers between local and central government. Furthermore, the response to the Scottish independence debate has been to create a “half-way house” which might well be unstable. This panel will debate issues such as: the economic costs and benefits of further devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; whether there should be radical devolution of tax raising and spending powers to local government; whether a federal United Kingdom should be created; and the economic and political benefits of Scottish independence.
Hold on a minute, surely something is missing from that statement? Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and…no, can’t think what it could be, it must be something insignificant and not worthy of discussion.
Joining Isabel to debate the issues at hand were Dr Angus Armstrong of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, SNP MP Tommy Sheppard, Editorial and Programme Director of the IEA Philip Booth and Matthew Sinclair, Senior Consultant at Europe Economics.
To be fair to them, both Angus Armstrong and Tommy Sheppard spoke very well, though without offering much in the way of new ideas. There was one eyebrow raising moment when Mr Sheppard seemed to say that, in comparison to Scotland, England had no strong identity or culture. However, following an interjection from one disgruntled Englishman in the audience, the MP quickly clarified that this was not his view and that he was simply trying to say that there was little support in England for regions, accepting that there was indeed a strong sense of English identity, varied though it was.
Angus Armstrong was more negative in his references to England, describing her as “the beast in the room”. Both men clearly supported the regionalisation of England, suggesting that no alternative was workable, though without actually tackling the issue of why that may be the case or what the alternatives were.
Philip Booth, whose new book “Federal Britain: The case for decentralisation” was being touted at the event, was far more definite in his views of what must happen in England. He wasted no time in shredding the concept of EVEL, though everyone has done that at some stage or another, including those who have supported the proposal. In the view of Mr Booth, the only option for England was to devolve more powers to local authorities, in particular with regard to regulation, tax and spending at a local level. One of the more disturbing assertions by Mr Booth was that handing more power to local government “would lead to competition between local authorities as voters could move from one local authority to another if their own was ineffective”. Never mind building communities or indeed what happens to those not affluent enough to be able to chop and change where they live at will.
This “if you don’t like it move” approach seems ill conceived and arrogant in the extreme. Combined with Mr Booth’s apparent inability to consider any other option, what initially appeared to be a genuine and insightful federal recommendation quickly revealed itself for what it actually was – Brussels rhetoric and old fashioned Balkanisation. The former advisor on financial stability issues for the Bank of England was clearly sporting his Europhile colours.
Another important point that seems to have been ignored by the entire regionalisation debating fraternity is why local authority reins were tightened in the first place. The last time councils were given licence to do as they please was an unmitigated disaster and Mr Booth seemed unwilling to address concerns about, for example, the award of public contracts for gain, nepotism, or political favours by local party bosses which has long been the hallmark of corrupt local authority politicians and officials.
Whatever your thoughts are on Mr Booths observations, he did at least have something to say. Matthew Sinclair, on the other hand, might as well have been auditioning for an appearance on ‘Just a minute’ alongside Paul Merton, though he may have to work on his repetition. He managed very successfully to sound like he was saying something meaningful, but under examination there was very little in the way of substance provided by Mr Sinclair, unless stating the obvious and waffle are to be considered substantial.
The attempt to suppress any English-centric questioning from the audience following the opening statements of the panel was patently obvious. When asked the question “where is the English voice within this panel?”, Mr Booth proclaimed himself to be the English voice stating that he had “Yorkshire running through his bones”. However, that didn’t stop him rubbishing the concept of English nationalism and it is notable that he describes himself as a British Economist – with no mention of Yorkshire or England as a nation on any of his personal biographies scattered around the web.
It wasn’t only English concerns that were ignored of course, with the Welsh position conveniently sidestepped also. One rather off-hand remark early on in the discussion had Mr Booth stating that the even the Welsh didn’t have any faith in their Assembly, branding it “a mess”. The validity or otherwise of this comment was undermined by the fact that not a single Welsh person was in the room to either confirm or deny the assertion, leading to one plucky audience member to interject “where is the Welsh voice on this panel?”. No answer was forthcoming.
At the closing of the debate it was clear that this movement towards regionalisation intended to shoot first and ask questions later, ignoring the concerns of the people of England – who have repeatedly rejected any and all moves to see their country cut up into bite sized chunks – and any alternatives to their single-minded proposals. Perhaps the title of the event should have been “by hook or by crook”, because this most certainly was not an open discussion – it was campaign propaganda designed to validate and move forward the regionalist agenda.
It is worth noting that the gentleman who had raised the question of English representation at the debate had been told, he revealed afterwards, that associates hadnt been allowed to attend due to the oversubscription of the event. The several empty chairs around the room during the discussion belied the truth of that initial objection, though one would suspect that even if the IEA held their next event at Wembley, there will be no room for an English focused voice.