The (d)evolution of British government


The UK is a bit like that couple who sleep in separate rooms. They snuggle up together from time to time on some big issues – they’ve been together for a while, after all – but in individual rooms they can organise their own stuff. Public health *here* with *this* much prominence: education on the top shelf, transport on the windowsill. Occasionally Westminster, in this metaphor filling the role of landlord, tells them they can’t put that there; they’re not responsible for this. But now that they’re out of one another’s way, dealing with their own issues, their relationship and fondness grows: now I remember why I like you.

Why shouldn’t they have their own rooms? Why shouldn’t they have devolution? Power shifting away from London to regional assemblies: local government for local people. Since 1999 Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have held their own devolved governments, decided by the people of the respective countries. Their handling of national NHS is to a large extent devolved to their assemblies, as are their education systems, agricultural policies, sport, transport, art, tourism and the level of tuition fees (lower in every country but England), to name some.

But devolution is not perfect. Some say it’s too little: indeed, devolved powers weren’t enough for 45% of Scots, who voted for complete autonomy. Some say it’s too much, the more ideological argument being that devolution is the dangling thread which could unravel our United Kingdom. The cost too, is a big one, with more people having to be employed in the new assemblies, new regional MP salaries, even the cost of new buildings. Though an economic hole is punctured, the new parliaments now have a say on how to repair this as they see fit and fair. With these oppositions in mind, why not stay together with one centralised government? Weren’t we alright that way? Well, no. A family of countries we may be, but we remain separate, distinct nations.

Like this: Britain gives the most votes to the Conservatives, granting them de facto power in 2010 – the vast majority of these Tory votes coming from England. As part of their economic plan, cuts hit. And the hits keep on coming. Scotland, a country further to the political left than England, voting a Labour majority or more recently an SNP majority in their Hollyrood parliament, sit proudly on the social democratic side of the spectrum. They scarper from generally unsavoury legislation like the bedroom tax. They have a different political affiliation, therefore a need for a different political assembly. Their devolved powers, however, are not yet strong enough to rid them of such taxes, which no doubt partly contributed to the 45% Yes vote for independence. The same political differences similarly apply to Wales and Northern Ireland.

Now England want their own room in the house of the UK too. It’s about time for English devolution, says the main political figureheads, following on from Westminster’s pinky promise to give Scotland greater devolved powers following the No vote. Clegg is for it, Farage is for it, the Tories certainly are, but Labour not so much. With Labour being Scotland’s second most popular party, their vote is crucial; Miliband can wave goodbye to a few million Labour-crossed ballot papers with no Scottish vote, hence the party’s message of ‘No thanks’ and their slight trepidation on an English parliament. With the Labour conference in Manchester just gone, they may not have so much to fear, however, with many Labour activists calling for devolved powers in regional areas like the North of England, which tends to be a Labour vote.

And yet ten years ago, referendums in the North were to be held. Only one was: 49% of the North East turned out to quash the idea of their own parliament by an affirmed 77.9%. The government saw no need for the other two in the North West and Yorkshire & Humber to go ahead. With Britain in a bit of a post #indyref fever, I suspect the result would be a bit different today. Why? Because local government is ultimately better for local people. With different needs for different people, different areas, one saturated government cannot effectively deal with regional issues.

1997: Scotland votes for devolution in a landslide; 2014: both Yes and No independence voters want more power. More power to people on the issues that affect them, with Westminster still there to get the family back together when needed. If it’s too far to say we can have our cake and eat it too, then maybe we can each have a fair slice.

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