My last piece dealt with how Labour needed to embrace the concept of federalism as a means by which the UK should be governed and England given a voice. This piece aims to add some more flesh to the bones of that concept, identifying what factors should be chosen when identifying a region suitable for an assembly, how many assemblies should be created, whether they should have ‘state’ or regional capitals, whether those capitals should be distinct from their economic hubs and so on. The discussion of what powers these assemblies should have, and how many members should sit in them will be for another piece.
What makes a region a region?
C.B. Fawcett identified four principles which should be applied when considering the creation of provinces. These were: Natural geography; Population distribution; regional identity; and local patriotism and tradition. Here we will deal many with the latter.
Much has been made recently of an awakening English identity that is distinct from British identity, yet it is important to recognise that on top of English identity there is also an identifiable regional identity for many people in many parts of the UK. So, for example, in the same way that someone could feel Scottish as well as British, someone is able to feel English and have pride in their Yorkshire heritage and also perhaps feel British. Identity is not a binary choice and should stop being treated as such.
Some do claim, however, that there is weak regional identity in England, with locals being more loyal to their town or football team than they are to their region. English regions have been described as functional spaces and a confusing crowd of institutions; they are not political or politicised spaces. Nor are they, with the possible exception of the North East, cultural spaces. This is a stark contrast to the development of political entities in Wales and Scotland, where the question of nation played a major part in the case for political institution building. Many, who oppose regionalism and regional assemblies for England, do so on the basis that the regions are lacking in a definable regional culture.
England is already regionally fractured, in terms of culture, society and economic fortunes, underscored by the North South divide; perhaps England is more ready for burgeoning regional identity than it is aware of. There is, without doubt, a regional sentiment in North East England, and there has been since before the 1979 devolution referendums, where the perception that Scotland may have gained political leverage from devolution, forged like Redcar steel, a sense of regional unity.
What regional boundaries should be used?
- The North East
- The North West
- Yorkshire and Humberside
- The West Midlands
- The East Midlands
- East Anglia
- The South West
- The South East
Why these regions?
There is a temptation when formulating local governance structures to over-complicate the constituent units. For example, the preponderance to highlight the rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool and then state that these two places could never be governed by the same place. Additionally, there were concerns for example that people from Sunderland wouldn’t want to be governed from Newcastle. All of these are legitimate concerns but they are outweighed by one thing – power.
It is the potential imbalance of power between the four constituent nations of the UK which means that an English Parliament is unworkable. The saying goes, that an English Parliament would be so powerful, that it would make a mockery of a federal system. The same is true for the regions, if one region consists of too strong an economy, too large a population, too much in the way of resources, it would imbalance the federation, and the federation would collapse.
So, although the temptation to divide Manchester and Liverpool is well-meaning, in the end it would not provide the stability that this project seeks to provide. The same can be said for Cornwall. Although the area has a burgeoning independence movement and certainly a strong sense of regional identity, it would be unwise to have the area be a separate region on its own. The size, population and local economy as it stands would unbalance the federation, meaning that Cornwall or Kernow, if you prefer, would feel undermined by the system and powerless. Therefore doing the exact opposite of what the scheme intends to do.
Will a Macken heed a Geordie? The need for a bottom up, not a top down process.
One of the very legitimate concerns that arose from a previous piece is that someone living in Sunderland would not take very kindly to being dictated to from a Parliament in Newcastle. The same would be said about Liverpool and Manchester, Ipswich and Norwich, Portsmouth and Southampton. As such, it is vital that any regional assembly process is a bottom-up process, including consultation with local people about what they want from a regional assembly and from where they felt comfortable being governed.
The proposed Yorkshire and Humberside region provides a perfect example of how this could work. It is unlikely that someone from Newcastle would want to be ruled by Sunderland or vice versa, yet could the people of Sunderland and Newcastle compromise that Middlesbrough could be their seat of government? It would certainly provide a fantastic opportunity to regenerate an area let down by consecutive Tory Governments and damaged by the loss of the steel industry. No? Well what about Leeds or York? The same could be said for Southampton and Portsmouth. If it is unlikely that they can decide between each other as the seat of government, why not take the opportunity to get city status for Bournemouth or regenerate the local economy in Poole?
Whatever the situation, regional governance presents a fantastic opportunity to regenerate local economies and provide mass infrastructure to areas left behind. And that is before a single debate is held in their chambers. Not only would these structures give English people a voice, it would vastly improve their local areas in the process.