Monday, September 22, 2014

On England

I stayed up far too late on Thursday, fascinated by the raw politics of it all. More was to come when I woke the next morning. First, David Cameron's breakfast speech which wiped out all attempts at "No" campaign solidarity and tried to trap Ed Milliband in a bear trap. Cameron, the P.R. guy, is at his best and worst when making snap decisions. The rest of the time he couldn't run a bath, which gives us the messes they have left behind in government, but he's a smart man of the moment. Relieved no doubt as not being the PM who broke up the Union, he promises a federal Britain, and an answer to the West Lothian question, whilst, as ever, not having any answers.

For federalism in Britain is fraught with difficulties given not only out decades of centralisation, but the nature of some of the questions.

Briefly, how could a federal Britain contemplate a European exit? If a referendum takes us out, then regions that voted emphatically to stay in, would be less empowered than now. How does the devolution of powers (and taxing powers) to regions such as Greater Manchester square with more cuts coming down the road, as soon as next March? A Conservative party that abolished Regional Development Agencies (replacing them with many more Employer led Local Economic Partnerships, with supposedly more power, but much less resource) is surely incapable of a regional policy? Yet its attempts at gerrymandering things so that is has more of a say in the North have failed dismally. Our Police Commissioners were elected with tiny turnouts; the system for elected mayors, which gave us a contest in Salford, but not for Greater Manchester, was equally flawed. Never mind their opposition (along with the Labour party) to a cocked up AV campaign.

The only constitutional change we have really seen since 2010 is the fixed term parliament - and it is this on which Cameron has his eye. Railroad Labour into some kind of consensus on a yet to be defined English federalism as a result of the promises made by all three leaders in Scotland only last week, and the distinctions between the parties at the next election might be even more difficult to discern. Certainly the West Lothian question - how can Scottish MPs vote on English matters? - casts a long shadow, though if we had a genuine divvying up of powers, then surely these devolved questions wouldn't come before parliament at all. And since no Tory will ever mention it, I don't see how an unelected second revising chamber, packed with placemen, hereditary Lords and a smattering of Bishops, can be immune from any constitutional upheaval.

Yet if we are to have some federal system, the left (and the left in the North) are yet to come up with a convincing solution. For every call for more decisions to be made in the North, one wonders where the people's voice is in this? It seems inconceivable that the Tories would recreate the metropolitan authorities - in which case have we got a version of what we have now. Can a federal Manchester really have legitimacy without some kind of proportional representation? And where would be the boundaries of this new Mayoral kingdom? Does Wigan, for instance, see itself continuing as one amongst ten?

The much maligned European Union takes money from member states such as the UK (including Scotland) then redistributes it. My salary has been pretty much paid for most of the last fifteen years by aspects of this redistribution. Those Tories and UKIPpers opposed to the EU always talk about the money we spend, not the money we receive back. This redistribution, essentially an attempt to bring the poorer parts of Europe (including in the UK) up to the levels of the average, is surely the only mechanism that could work in the UK - yet again, the "neighbour renewal" monies that Labour redistributed in this way, were cancelled with a penstroke in 2010, whilst specific funding around transport, housing, green energy and growth are subject to competitions between cities and regions. Our X-Factor economy may be good Saturday night viewing, but doesn't do much for Britain in the long run. When London politicians can prioritise new vanity schools in areas without need, ahead of providing places for all, we know we are in the politics of the madhouse.In other words the logic of Union is not "he who pays the piper calls the tune" but a desire to move to a more equal country - where the "shared" services such as defence and foreign policy and EU membership are counterbalanced by a redistribution from the richer areas (and from the richer sections of society) in order to improve on the things that bind us together. Scotland has more land mass and colder winters than the rest of the UK, it should be for the body collective to pay for those conditions as it should be for a rich London to invest in the regeneration of northern cities. (And if thats not the case: then surely the time comes when a "land tax" or something similar extracts value from our rentier culture?)

It is the Labour Party Conference this week, and rather than the Cricket captain's advantage of batting first it feels like going into the crease before the other team has turned up. What Labour need to do is not dance to a Tory agenda, though the monotrack of the media makes this difficult. The logic behind the "Yes" campaign after all, was a dialogue that was ignored by an uninterested London-centric media. I head down to London today for a conference, where I'll be talking about international cooperation between cities, its not a conversation that I want to be sent to the margins.

Coincidentally I just picked up Alasdair Gray's 2000 anthologgy "Book of Prefaces". In his own preface he writes "as a Scottish socialist who thinks home rule a necessary step toward making a humane democracy..." before quoting approvingly Shelley's statement from 1820: "If England were divided into 40 republics, each equal in population and extent to Athens...under insititutions not more perfect than those of Athens, each would produce philosophers and poets equal to those (if we except Shakespeare) have never been surpassed." The logic of the Union in 2014 has changed, it can no longer be an extension of a settlement set out by William the Conqueror and his sons, even if so much of the apparatus of land ownership and top-down political control would be recognisable to an 11th century Lord.

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