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Devolution in the North of England: time to bring the people into the debate?

The referendum in Scotland is creating impetus for a redistribution of power within England. But who will determine the shape of this - Westminster, local elites or local citizens?

In the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, the ‘English Question’ has gained new political traction, emerging as one of the most crucial issues underpinning the debate on the future of the Union. In spite of its result, the Scottish vote has certainly shed light, with a renewed emphasis, on the presence of a growing democratic deficit across and within the  nations of the UK, and in particular in England. This, in turn, has triggered a new interest both within political elites and the wider society on the role and place that England should have in the context of an increasingly decentralised UK.

For the for the first time, all the main traditional parties have overtly embraced the narrative of the English Question – putting it at the core of their political discourse, and offering alternative ways to address it. The Conservatives have proposed the introduction of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ as a means to tackle the West Lothian Question. At the same time, they have also sketched a ‘new regional agenda’ for England, advocating devolution to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to boost economic development in the north of England and also proposing the introduction of directly elected mayors in northern cities such as Manchester (with others to follow) if the party wins the 2015 general election.

Meanwhile, the Labour party has argued that there is need for a ‘constitutional convention’ to consider the future governance of England within the context of the UK more widely. However, the party has also reiterated its belief in City Regions, a policy first mooted in the wake of the 2004 North-East regional assembly referendum defeat – stating that it will pass an ‘English Devolution Act’ if elected into government, giving more powers to City and also County regions, and replacing the House of Lords with an elected Senate of the Nations and regions to work as a forum for regional representation.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats are showing a commitment to devolve greater powers to the local level, as reflected in their support for a Cornish Assembly, and through the ‘Northern Futures’ project. And yet, the growing popularity of minority parties in England indicates the emergence of a more complex political landscape. The rapid rise of UKIP in the European elections as well as in by-elections across England shows how the party has the potential to become a de facto English nationalist force, likely to exploit any grievance within the devolution debate to present England as the ‘victim’ nation of the Union.

Interestingly, however, this time round mainstream parties are not the only actors trying to influence the agenda on English devolution – as shown by the recent growth of new regionalist parties, especially in the North of England. English regionalist parties may not be an entirety new phenomenon. The Wessex Regionalists have been around for a while; and, despite its claim that Cornwall is not a region but a nation, Mebyon Kernow is in practice ‘regionalist’ in its approach, as reflected in its support for a Cornish Assembly, rather than full independence. What is certainly new, though, is the emergence of regionalist parties in the North of England, i.e. Yorkshire First, the North East Party, and the Campaign for the North. These parties share common regional devolution claims, arguing for the establishment of a Yorkshire Parliament, a North East Assembly and a pan-Northern Assembly respectively. They also seek to politicise regional identities, taking inspiration from the example of Scotland. In spite of having been formed just over the past year and a half, they will all fight the May 2015 general election, fielding candidates across the North of England.

Although the public  long showed a lack of interest on issues of decentralisation for England, this trend too seems to be reversing. Sensing the strength and traction of devolutionist agendas in contemporary politics, and their growing resonance amongst the public, the BBC ran a series of programmes exploring the issues involved in the autumn of 2014. Similarly, regional newspapers have also focused on issues of regionalism and decentralisation, as illustrated for example by the Yorkshire Post’s recent publication of a ‘Yorkshire Manifesto’ in view of the 2015 general election.

All these points clearly illustrate the saliency not only of the English Question in general, but also of its regional permutations — pointing towards a form of ‘new regionalism’ which seems to be taking a particularly Northern flavour. The regions of the North, in fact, are at the forefront of the current debate on the future of territorial governance and decentralisation in England.

The key themes and questions underpinning the narrative of this nascent ‘Northern regionalism’ were unpacked and discussed at length in a symposium held at the University of Huddersfield (co-sponsored by the Centre for Research in the Social Sciences and the Political Studies Association and organised by the Britishness Specialist Group) on the 13th of February: ‘Decentralisation and the Future of Yorkshire’. Although, as its title suggests, the event focussed on the specific case of Yorkshire, the debate gave rise to a number of important reflections that apply to the whole North of England, and can also serve as a basis to put the wider English Question in perspective.

One of the key issues at stake concerns the need to extend discussion on English devolution beyond the ‘closed circle’ of Westminster and mainstream party politics – opening up to local and regional stakeholders, and giving voice to the grassroots. Put simply, none of the plans proposed by the mainstream parties can succeed if they are not accepted ‘from the bottom’. This links to another very important and yet often underestimated point, i.e. that regional devolution in the North of England should not just be about reviving economies, so as to address the North-South divide, but also about improving democracy. For the most part, the underlying message in the current regional and city regional agenda seems to be that devolution will lead to economic renewal for the regions ‘lagging behind’. And yet, this is only one side of the coin – because to really flourish regional economies need to be nurtured from the bottom, through a system of governance which is ultimately accountable to the people, and not only to Westminster.

From this angle, the regionalist parties that are emerging in the North of England have a great potential, especially if they succeed in joining forces with civil society organisation and movements, mobilising grassroots support and pushing for the creation of some form of ‘Northern Constitutional Convention’ capable of influencing decision and policy-making at the centre. In this sense, there is a great deal that can be learnt from Scotland, and in particular from the experience of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The most obvious one is that effective regional devolution requires concerted efforts from the centre and from the bottom, so as to engage in a constructive dialogue on how to build a more democratic and accountable system of governance that can ultimately improve people’s life. In a social climate characterised by increasing levels of political disenfranchisement, the example of Scotland shows that accountable decentralisation can be an effective way to restore the relationship between the public and the wider political system – bringing decision and policy-making closer to people and, in this way, putting people back into politics.

But concerted discussion is also needed to establish the level(s) at which powers should be devolved, and to develop a constructive relationship between different layers of government. One of the most striking aspects in the current debate on devolution in the North of England is that the main actors (local governments, leaders’ boards, political parties, business organisations, etc.) seem to work in isolation – each devising their own plans, often irrespective (or wary) of the positions of the others. This climate of ‘mutual suspicion’ hinders decentralisation from within, and should be changed so as to transform the current competing discourses of city-regions, regions, elected mayors and local authorities into a ‘virtuous narrative’ able to inform a consistent and non-redundant new regional architecture.

Finally, looking north of the border offers also insights on the potential implicit in the politicisation of regional identities – especially in regions such as Yorkshire and the North East, with a long tradition of cultural, political and historical distinctiveness. After all regions, like nations, are imagined communities too (although ‘thinner’ and less bound to the concept of self-determination). Hence, they can be constructed, exploiting shared regional traits and values and forging a community that simulates the archetypical principle for political organisation, i.e. kinship. However, as Scotland shows us, such a process does not necessarily have to be founded on ethnic principles, which could lead to some form of ‘exclusive’ political identity/ community. On the contrary, regional identities in the North of England could be mobilised as part of an inclusive political project that seeks to nurture shared civic and democratic values and bonds – a plan that ‘speaks to the people’ and aims at actively involve them in the construction of a better future for their region. This could provide the foundations to build a notion of the North as a coherent and meaningful political space – and is perhaps one of the greatest challenges ahead.

Thus, whether regional devolution in the North of England will succeed or fall may well hinge on the ability to generate ‘democratic momentum’, creating a clear, bold, confident and concerted vision for the future. However, the story of the Scottish Constitutional Convention also tells us that such a process will take time, and cannot be rushed or accomplished overnight. In this sense, the following months and the results and effects of the imminent general election (as well as the way in which both regionalist and mainstream parties will react to these) will be crucial in shaping the path ahead.

About the author

Dr Arianna Giovannini is a Researcher at SPERI (Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute), University of Sheffield. Her research interests centre on devolution, constitutional change and democracy. Currently her work concentrates on the tensions between technocratic and democratic approaches to devolution in the context of the ‘City Deals’ and ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda, as well as on the link between territorial identity and devolution in the North. She is on Twitter @AriannaGi

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