CAERNARFON, WALES – Scotland’s chance to vote for independence has lit hopes in other regions of Britain that a reworking of political ties might boost their chances of self-rule too.
London-based parliamentarians have been wrong-footed by a late surge of support among Scottish voters planning to say “yes” on Sept. 18, and their consequent hurried promise to award Edinburgh more economic decision-making if it stays part of the union is being eyed by Manchester, Yorkshire and Wales.
A big gap has widened in Britain in recent decades between cities and regions at each end of the country. The so-called North-South Divide came about because manufacturing and mining industries in the north and midlands failed while London and the southeast saw a boom in financial and media industries.
It’s a source of bitterness for many British voters, who see London as a city state increasingly detached from the rest of the United Kingdom not just economically but culturally. And analysts agree the government in Westminster has left whole areas of the rest of the country to stagnate because they don’t have the power to tailor their own growth policies.
“While global competitors are free to invest in their major cities, U.K. metros are at the mercy of central government, hoping for a cut of a fixed pot of national income,” said the RSA City Growth Commission in a report chaired by economist Jim O’Neill.
The United Kingdom has one of the most centralized systems of public finance of any major OECD country. The proportion of taxation set by local government accounts for just 1.7 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product, compared to 5 percent in France and 16 percent in Sweden, according to the RSA report.
Now, however, the Scottish referendum, coming after the United Kingdom endured several years of recession, has prompted local politicians, leaders and businessmen to shout louder for the regional autonomy they need to boost growth in their areas too.
Nearly half of Britons — 48 percent — support more decision-making powers being devolved to English and Welsh cities and regions, according to a poll published on Tuesday that was conducted by ComRes for ITV News.
In England’s biggest county, Richard Carter launched the “Yorkshire First” campaign in August, calling for devolution to a regional government.
With a population the same size as Scotland and an economy twice the size of Wales, Yorkshire is suffering because it has the powers of neither, Carter says.
“It is a sad indictment that we live in the nation with 9 of the 10 poorest areas in Northern Europe. If the existing U.K. structures are working so well, why is it that London appears to be hoovering up the wealth, vitality and energy of the regions of the U.K.?” he wrote in an article on the campaign’s website.
Speaking to Reuters, the 48-year-old business adviser explained: “We need a state that works for all parts of the kingdom. We don’t want to be having the discussion we’re having with Scotland again in 100 years’ time about Yorkshire or the North deciding enough is enough.”
Elsewhere in the north, many inhabitants of Greater Manchester agree.
The county in northwest England has a bigger population than Northern Ireland and a larger economy than Wales. That makes it a prime candidate for devolved powers, says Phillip Blond, director of think tank ResPublica.
Blond published a report on Monday suggesting that Manchester be given income-tax raising powers and control over more public spending, in what could be “a blueprint for independence for cities in England.”
Meanwhile in Wales, which has a population of just over 3 million, Dafydd Wigley, the former leader of the nationalist party Plaid Cymru, thinks that his party will only be boosted by a “yes” vote in Scotland.
Wales already has its own assembly but a lack of confidence in the country’s economic prospects since large parts of it were scarred by the closure of heavy industry and mining has so far muted support for further devolution.
Independence is supported by about 10 percent of voters, Wigley says, and remains a long-term goal. Plaid Cymru believes Wales should get more power to raise taxes and determine its spending, on the same terms granted to Scotland.
“If there is a move towards a federal, or a quasi-federal model, then Wales and Northern Ireland would certainly expect there to be similar provisions made for us,” he said.
How far to go?
Yorkshire, with its white roses fluttering on flags over city halls across the region, and Manchester, with its engineering output and cultural profile, have, along with other English cities like Liverpool and Newcastle, strong identities that help fuel their inhabitants’ desire for autonomy.
Not all parts of Britain can say the same however and so far, attachment to local regions has not translated into enthusiasm for what devolved power is currently available.
Towns and cities have been permitted to have elected mayors since 2000 but few have taken up the opportunity. Eleven of England’s largest cities voted in 2012 on whether to introduce an elected mayor, with nine of the 11 — including Manchester and Newcastle — rejecting the idea.
In part this is down to public distrust of politicians. Having seen lawmakers bail out banks that made massive losses and award themselves pay rises while imposing budget cuts and austerity measures on the general public, voters stayed away in droves from recent regional elections suggesting many struggle to see that involvement with the “system” is the way forward.
And with a huge array of councils already in place across the country — Yorkshire alone has 22 — the thought of more demarcations across the country could be off-putting too.
“With more power being devolved to Scotland, many are calling for the U.K. to move toward a more explicitly federal structure with Westminster acting as an English-only parliament on issues where power has been devolved, and as a cross-U.K. body on issues deemed to cut across national boundaries,” acknowledges JP Morgan in a report published on Tuesday.
“That may appear simple in principle, but creates a lot of issues in practice. How does one delineate where the boundary between ‘UK’ and ‘English/Scottish/Irish/Welsh” stands?’ ” the report said.
Or, as 71-year-old Yorkshireman Derrick Lund puts it: “How far do you want to go? Are you just going to be Yorkshire? Are you just going to be Copmanthorpe? Once you start going that way, where does it end?”
Blond believes however that the recent explosion of Scottish nationalism has woken Britons elsewhere to the possibilities brought by devolution.
“If you can link devolution with renewal and revival then I think you can change (people’s opinions),” he said.
“What we have is an enormous level of unresolved antipathy and no idea as to what the answers are, and what I’m suggesting is that devolution is part of the answer and I think over time people will gradually agree with us and support it.”
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