Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

A federal Britain?

Gordon Brown  has been considering the future structure of Britain and an article in the Guardian reports that:

he is the highest profile UK politician to utter the political F-word during this debate. He is right to do this, because federalism, in some shape or form, is one of the great awakening issues in the debate about what happens after 18 September. The four nations of Britain need to engage with federalist options before the referendum takes place, because if there is a no vote they will have to engage with it afterwards.

Federalism is a Janus-like word. In Britain’s Europe debate it is routinely misused to mean its opposite, centralism.
The Guardian 11 June 2014 : Gordon Brown is right: federalism is on its way if the Scots shun independence

I have struggled to get my mind around an effective structure for English Devolution in a Federal Britain. No solution is optimal – we just need to decide where the non-optimal pain is felt.

If Scotland votes “no” there has to be a new settlement. but I fail to see how we can get his “constitutional partnership of equals in what is in essence a voluntary multinational association,” unless and until we sort out “the England Question”.

Outside the English Democrats, there is little true support for an English Parliament because we do not have an “English Identity” (as opposed to a “British Identity”) beyond support for a football/rugby union/cricket team. So, for instance, outside London and the South East, there is a genuine well-founded fear that such a parliament is likely to be perpetually Conservative and to accentuate the “Westminster dominance” that is driving so many Scots away. Our identity within our Britishness is more parochial – but unfortunately not uniformly so. In Yorkshire there will be a high degree of regional identity with the region of Yorkshire. You cannot say the same of say Dorset, Norfolk or Staffordshire.

A “federal structure of four” (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England) will not really work in a “federal sense” because England is so large and instinctively dominant.

At the top-level there will still be a feeling that “the English way” (however much such a way is a chimera) is dominant – and this will cause continuation of centrifugal pressure. So England needs a devolved structure.

Traditionally devolution follows the premise that “any solution must be all-inclusive” – which to me means that everyone is in a “region” and each region has the same powers. This is a solution to address an “accessible democracy problem”.

I agree that our democracy is currently too remote – but we have another problem as well. We have a dominant city. in many countries the second and third cities are only slightly smaller than the biggest city. In the UK the built up area of London is almost four times the built up area of Greater Manchester.

Urban Areas of England and Wales with English Regional Boundaries (Wikimedia Commons) superimposed.

Urban Areas of England and Wales with English Regional Boundaries (Wikimedia Commons) superimposed. Circles show relative size of population – not built up areas.

Do we want a federal model that has nice lines on a map or do we want to restructure the country so that there are economic centres that can viably compete with London? If we want to do the latter we will not do so by for instance expanding Manchester by a factor of 3 or 4 – we need a different model.

I think a suitable model is the multi-centre city region. Greater London already in some respect follows this model: Docklands – The City – Westminster – Heathrow. The multi-centres are held together by high-capacity (if slow pre-Crossrail) transport links.

A prospective multi-centre city region is Leeds – Manchester – Liverpool. This is quite a distance compared to London. Docklands to Heathrow is about 25-30 miles and can take over an hour. Liverpool to Leeds is 68 miles and travel by rail currently takes between 1 hr 47 minutes and 2 hours. How would the city region seem if it took only 38 minutes (the time it takes the Javelin service to do 67 miles from St Pancras to Ashford International)?

With modern high-speed rail it is possible to supply the infrastructure necessary to create economic centres that could compete with London – to the benefit of the whole country. Within England, in addition to London, there are two “obvious” multi-centre city regions: Leeds – Manchester – Liverpool and some form of combination of the Midlands conurbations (such as Nottingham – Derby/Leicester – West Midlands – again about 60 mile diameter). Any other combinations such as Gloucester – Bristol – Bath, Exeter – Plymouth, or Newcastle – Sunderland – Middlesbrough, would be relative minnows.

If you buy the argument that alternative economic (and power) centres of gravity to London are a priority, you end up with what I have described as the “three fried eggs in a pan” model. You then have to decide what to do about the egg-whites.

1) You attach them to the “nearest yolk” – I think, for instance, Cornwall or Norfolk will think the Midlands (or London) yolk is too remote. The city-regions should be concentrating on their urban economic development – and I think the egg-white hinterlands would be neglected – they will have very little demographic power.

2) Create “egg-white regions” – Wessex, Weald, East Anglia, South Midlands, the (True) North (!?). Will they get a decent say or will they be dominated by the three yolks? They would be about a quarter to half the population of the mega-regions. The majority of the population of England would already be in these three mega-regions.

3) The egg-whites (which probably have a degree of commonality of issues) are “administered” by the federal government by what I provocatively called a “Provinces Ministry” – a bit like a combination of the Northern Ireland Office, Welsh Office and Scottish Offices – prior to devolution. They would suffer a “demographic deficit”, but would probably get a better economic deal than option (1) or (2) above.

No solution is ideal for the “egg-whites”, but I am not convinced that – in practice – small regions in a federal structure dominated by a mega London Region will work.


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  1. Pingback: West Glamorgan Question | Outside the marginals

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