Commentary / World

Political and economic factors driving devolution

“Subsidiarity” to British politicians means the return of powers from Brussels to the British government to make decisions and legislate on issues that need not be uniform throughout the European Union such as preventing distortions in the single market.

This key British demand in negotiations with the EU is supported in principle by many EU states and is in line with EU treaties. The problem lies not in the principle but in reaching agreement on what has to be decided at the center.

“Devolution” follows this principle within a nation’s boundaries.

What powers can and should be delegated to regional bodies within the country and how far do laws and provisions have to be the same across the whole country?

The referendum on independence for Scotland, which the pro-independence Scottish Nationalists lost, has stimulated a debate not only about the powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, and the separate assemblies for Wales and Northern Ireland, but also to local governments in England and its regions.

The three main parties in Westminster have agreed to devolve to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh the setting of income tax rates as well as substantial other powers in relation to taxation and administration.

Scotland, during some 300 years of union, has maintained its own legal system of criminal and civil justice. This means that, for instance, the limits on how much alcohol a driver can safely consume without violating the law are lower in Scotland than across the border in England.

Members elected to the British Parliament at Westminster from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can at present vote on all matters reserved for the central government as well as on issues that affect England only, although English members of Parliament cannot vote on matters devolved to regional assemblies.

This anomaly has raised the question of whether there should be a separate English Parliament or assembly to decide English matters. This would be expensive and unpopular at a time when there is much contempt for politicians.

An alternative being discussed is that English MPs alone should debate and agree at Westminster on measures affecting only England.

Such an apparently simple solution, however, poses political problems. The Labour Party in opposition has had significant numbers of MPs elected for Scottish constituencies and might depend on this cohort in order to win a majority in the House of Commons at the next election in 2015. If it did not have a majority of MPs elected for seats in England, it might then be unable to pass legislation for England or even get approval for a budget.

If Scotland, with a population of 5.25 million, can have substantial powers, why can’t Yorkshire, for example, with a population of some 5.3 million, have similar powers?

One problem is that the economy of Yorkshire is closely connected with the economies of other counties such as Lancashire, Durham and Northumberland. While Yorkshire people may feel as strongly about their origins as the Scots or the Welsh, there is no clearly identifiable region to which powers could be devolved. Moreover, earlier suggestions by the previous Labour Party government for regional assemblies were rejected in regional referenda.

Nevertheless, demands for more devolution to regions in England are increasing. These come together with pressures for regional development and especially for strengthening the links between northern cities across the Pennines (a range of hills in central England) to bring closer together the cities of Manchester and Leeds as well as Liverpool and Sheffield.

Ministers talk of building a “northern powerhouse” to rival London and of new transport links including high-speed rail (the HS2 project) to help bridge the North/South divide.

Other regions such as the “Black Country” around Birmingham, East Anglia and the South West, especially Cornwall, which boasts of having a few speakers of its old language Cornish, demand that their interests not be forgotten in the devolution debate.

London, as the capital and center of government, has always been a focal point in British life, but power in the 20th century has become ever more centralized in London.

Margaret Thatcher disliked local governments, some of which were controlled in her time as prime minister by what was termed the “loony left.”

There are still doubts among politicians and central government bureaucrats about the competence of some local councils and bureaucrats. Recent revelations about the way in which children’s services have been run in some places, and about local police forces, have reinforced these views.

A major factor that has strengthened London’s position has been the concentration of financial services in the city and the way in which London has attracted wealth and people from Europe, the United States and the rest of the world. London is also the country’s main transport hub.

Trains from North, South, East and West converge there. Cross-country journeys not involving a change in London are difficult. While regional airports have been developed, long-haul flights tend to go only to and from London.

Northern England used to be the center of manufacturing. Manchester was once the cotton capital of the world. Bradford and Huddersfield dominated the trade in wool textiles; Sheffield in cutlery and metallurgy; while Stoke on Trent was renowned for its pottery. Deindustrialization has changed the face of Britain, and Britain has become increasingly a service economy.

With no sign that Britain’s trade deficit can be easily bridged, the government emphasizes the need to rebalance the economy and recognizes the importance of improvements in productivity. The North has a major part to play in these efforts. The northern powerhouse, which the government wants, cannot be achieved by simple fiat from London. Devolution is not just a political but also an economic necessity.

Subsidiarity and devolution are issues that are germane to all countries. For some countries, the answers may be found through developing federal structures. For Japan they could be sought through further regionalization of local government, but such changes need to be accompanied by electoral reform to ensure greater equality between rural and urban constituencies.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

Coronavirus banner