The real battle for the future of the English regions is just beginning

by Kevin Meagher

THIS time of year, as the bonfires blaze and the fireworks bang, many keen regional devolutionists will commemorate waking up to find a different political revolution (albeit one with more modest aims) had bitten the dust. Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of the ill-fated referendum on an elected regional assembly for the north-east of England.

As you may recall, back in 2004, Labour promised referendums would be held in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humber regions about whether each should have an elected assembly.

The powers on offer were not vast. At that stage, frankly, neither should they have been. This was never a call for mini-parliaments. Or regional prime ministers. Or declarations of UDI. It was about creating small, strategic bodies to democratise decisions taken by unaccountable public officials and act as all purpose galvanisers, instigators and cajolers for northern interests.

In the end, just the north-east, long thought to be the likeliest harbinger of regional devolution, was given the go-ahead. The government had got cold feet, fearing the message about “creating another tier of bureaucracy” was too potent. So it cancelled the other two votes.  The entreaties of campaigners in those regions counted for little. For a government hooked on winning things, the prospect of a triple whammy defeat was too much to bear, so they sought to minimise the political fallout.

Looking back, that decision was undeniably prescient. 78% of people in the north-east voted ‘No’ to the prospect of an elected regional assembly. Turnout was a respectable 48%. The people had spoken. While the civil service smirked. You could sense their schadenfreude from 250 miles away.

Those of us in the other cancelled campaigns were demoralised enough before the vote took place; but the north-east result slammed the door decisively on the whole idea. Like Cuban irregulars at the bay of pigs in 1961, we were armed, ready and waiting on the beach; willing to fight. Our Yes campaigns (particularly in the north-west) had genuine business support and a solid campaign plan. We even had some cash.

However the political air cover we were promised failed to materialise. Irritatingly, it was not a last minute loss of nerve. The truth was more prosaic. The Labour government never really believed in the policy; it’s as simple as that.  Tony Blair did not want to know. Neither did most of the cabinet. That lack of vocal support from the government and the Westminster class was the equivalent of being handed the black spot. The public took the hint that this was not a serious go-er and voted against.

Regional assemblies were pitched as John Prescott’s folly. A tit-bit to keep him sweet. The theory went that assemblies would either be weak enough not to cause trouble or crash before take-off in the public votes. Either way, the pillars of the temple would not shake.

As he waded past his colleagues’ inertia, it is to John Prescott’s eternal credit that he used up so much of his political stock in pushing the agenda. As far as the poor bloody infantry were concerned, our ministerial generals simply zoned-out. Only Prescott and his deputy Nick Raynsford came through.

Nevertheless, ERAs were a bold attempt to provide some institutional heft for the north of England, fighting for a fairer share of the national pie, acting as a bulwark against arbitrary central government decisions.

Unlike the bay of pigs, it was a noble campaign to be involved with. Ensuring real decisions are taken locally is something the whole political class swears fealty to, but seldom puts into practice. It remains an enduring necessity.

Now, in these straitened times, the northern regions are left without an effective lobby to match Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, or, indeed, London. The sight of a trio of first ministers fighting for their nations during the spending round was matched by that sinking feeling that a few obscure council leaders and hollowed-out RDAs stood no chance of parrying their persuasive efforts.

And it will get worse. Soon the north will lose whatever economic clout rit has with the planned evisceration of regional development agencies. The very concept of regional policy is being erased by the Tory-Liberal coalition and replaced by a strange mixture of both centralism and localism: Resources head to the centre, accountability for unpopular cuts gets devolved.

Could a referendum in the north west or Yorkshire have succeeded? Possibly, if the government had been properly behind the idea and given it a fair crack of the whip. But it needed a longer run-up.

Ultimately, however, esoteric public policy issues do not really lend themselves to a Yes/No referendum. It would have been better for Labour to have made ERAs a clear manifesto commitment and simply got on with establishing them. This was not the equivalent of Scottish or Welsh devolution and the tactics should have reflected that.

So my co-conspirators and I will drink to the memory of a campaign that was not so much lost as wrested from us. Unlike Guy Fawkes we did not seek to blow up parliament; simply to shatter the bloated, self-satisfied consensus that London must run everything.

Six years ago we lost. But the real battle for the future of the English regions is just beginning. And who will speak for them now?

Kevin Meagher is a campaign consultant and former ministerial advisor.

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8 Responses to “The real battle for the future of the English regions is just beginning”

  1. Joe Caluori says:

    It always seemed to me that the great problem with English Regionalism is that the geographical units in question had little sympathy with people’s tribal feelings of where they’re from. People might say they come from the North East or the South East, but who on earth would ever identify with being from the East Mids or the North West? They may as well have been numbered like Soviet Oblasts.

    Perhaps if smaller units more like City Regions had been employed there could have been some progress, but even that leaves unanswered questions about many rural areas

  2. Kevin says:

    Get what you’re saying Joe, but we already have regional government. We have decisions of immense importance being made by unelected provincial governors in Government Offices and a plethora of quangos. Of course the GOs are going – so that will mean civil servants in Whitehall will now control things wholesale. Plus ca change?

    Again, regional development agencies are going – as are their budgets and most important powers – back to the department of business. Responsibility for sorting the mess left behind is the bit that gets devolved.

    Everyone in politics talks a good game about localism but not many translate it into action. Britain is now completely asymmetric. We have devolution in Scotland, Wales, NI and London. But nothing inbetween. Is it any wonder we have the Barnett formula at one end and 9.5bn chucked at the Olympics at the other?

    Mayors are a poor substitute for regions, but they are better than what we’ve got. That role of chief galvaniser is crucial.

    Regionalism is not about swearing an oath of allegiance to a flag (although Tony Wilson, God rest him) did suggest one for the North West. It is simply about giving some clout to (in particular) the north of England when it comes to the great resource carve up.

    As I say, this was never about mini-parliaments or UDI – it was simply an attempt to provide a more rational way of governing the country. One that tried to introduce a bit more democracy, accountability and localism into the equation.

    Because some of us actually believe in localism.

  3. Toque says:

    And who will speak for England as a whole?

  4. A few thoughts –

    The YES campaign in the north east of England had more than ten times the budget than the NO campaign had… Skewed-manipulative or what?

    Losing the vote made little difference to the YES campaign – Labour installed unelected RAs anyway (The leader of the NE unelected Assembly bizarrely claimed that he had been given a mandate to commission an unelected version as the voters had rejected the elected option)..

    Anything that has had John Prescott’s dabs all over it is always going to crash and burn… for example, Transport policy in the late nineties and Pathfinder housing projects across the north of England…. (and I’m not including Tracy Temple)..

    The regional assembly policy was a crude attempt to balkanise England – it has failed (thank God). Instead, it has raised English national awareness – a slumbering giant has at last woken up..

    Labour should have known that national empowerment cannot be given to Wales, Scotland and NI without also giving it to England. I can only assume arrogance, control freakery and craven stupidity were responsible for the assymetrically devolved camel which Tone ‘n’ Gordy thought up on the back of a fag packet in the Granita restaurant…

    If the Labour party truly believed in democracy then an English Parliament with our own English First Minister would have been (and still is) the only answer. Then we too can join the international brotherhood of democratic nations (and stop being the only nation in Europe without any national representation).. (Also, interesting to note that England was the only nation in the recent Commonwealth Games without a national parliament)..

    The word ‘democracy’ derives from the Greek ‘Demos’ and Kratos’ – ‘People’ and ‘Power’… Democracy is ‘PeoplePower’ and our politicians would do well to remember that. The last few national opinion polls has shown a consistent and growing demand for the reinstatement of an English Parliament. The latest has 68% in favour.

    Some politicians say that England is ‘too big’ to have its own parliament (I wonder how on earth Germany, France and Russia with 10 time zones cope?).. But when compared to Scotland say, we do not have 2 official languages, we do not have an industrial range from crofting to silicone glen, we do not have such diverse landscapes nor do we have a region that consists almost entirely of islands…

    Some politicians say an English Parliament would be more expensive. WRONG! An English Parliament would mean smaller, cheaper and more representative governance. As over 70% of all Westminster business is English only, it would replace the Commons – 750 Lords can then be given their P45s and be replaced with around 100 representatives of the 4 nations to discuss and legislate reserved matters…

    One thing is for sure, according to the UN charter, mine and 50 million other English people have a right to a national democratic body – and it isn’t up to any spiv politician to tell me it isn’t required.. My democratic right is not up as a sort of barter chip in keeping the status quo in some forlorn hope that the union can be preserved. If the union crashes and burns because we have our own national parliament then good riddance to bad rubbish….

    And if the union is so, so strong and Labour keep telling us that devolution has apparently strengthened the union, why is it that all 3 devolved administrations in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff are either wholly or partly run by nationalist parties (Plaid, Sinn Fein and the SNP?)..

    English Parliament Now!!!

  5. New Labour were so damn stubborn in what they deemed to be a ‘region’ they lost the opportunity to devolve power.

    Because they stuck to their artificial government zones such as the South West Region, when a REAL historic region with a strong identity -The Duchy of Cornwall- popped up and asked for an assembly Labour refused point blank to even consider it.

    We presented you with a petition of 50,000 signatures calling for an assembly and you chucked it in the bin. That to me denotes a very poor respect for democracy and the people of Cornwall.

    The Cornish Constitutional Convention:

    The Duchy of Cornwall Human Rights Association:

    If you want to win back support in the Duchy then perhaps you should positively address the Cornish question.

  6. Andy Cooper says:

    Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland had referendums on regionalisation, some had more then one.

    Yet in your refusal to give England any say you refused to give us a single referendum. It would have been easy to ask everyone whether they wanted an English Parliament or ERA.
    But you knew exactly which we would have chosen so you went about it in the usual underhand method.

    Even your wording shows your deciept and underhandedness.

    It would have been better for Labour to have made ERAs a clear manifesto commitment and simply got on with establishing them.

    So my co-conspirators and I will drink to the memory

    I will join you in that drink as long as it is to the memory of something better off dead.

  7. Steve says:

    The Cornish Constitutional Convention met with the South West Constitutional Convention and offered mutual recognition (a south west referendum minus Cornwall) which they arrogantly refused.

    Cornwall was the only region where support for devoluton had been expressed. The 50,000 signatures which Philip Hosking referred to was something like an eighth of the Cornish electorate. MORI conducted an opinion poll and found that 55% of the Cornish electorate wanted a Cornish Assembly, compared with just 12% who wanted to be part of a south west regional one.

    Cornwall could have pionnered devolution for the Labour government but it was pig headed in not wanting to let natural regions form, instead insisting on unpopular zones fashioned from world war 2 rationing regions. No identity, no culture and no economic rationale.

    Thats why Cornwall and Scilly have now been accepted as a Local Enterprise Partnership. Deep down Prescott and his pals knew this as they held referendum in the one English region that did have some identity – the NE – as a trial run.

    Stubborness and a contempt for democracy lost Labour the day and an opportunity.

  8. David Robins says:

    “This was never a call for mini-parliaments.” Well, no wonder it failed then.

    Wessex is glad to see the back of New Labour and its brain-dead approach to regionalism. We are demanding real regions with real history, flags, identity, the lot, in short, the European norm. We are demanding at least the powers devolved to Scotland or, better still, a radically different approach to sovereignty that is genuinely ‘bottom-up’. We are demanding the right to be English in our own way in our own space, free from London oppression.

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