Saturday, November 10, 2007

Is devolution a concern for England - or just the south?

I've just come across an article in The Herald entitled Why the figures peddled by Scotland's critics don't add up, looking at several "myths" and "facts" about the various claims and counter claims about what Scotland puts into and gets out of public spending. If one thing stands out clearer than anything else, it's that statisticians could join economists as a vocation that can never reach a collective conclusion.

But one thought did stand out from the figures and that is that by and large most of the financial grounds for grievance are ones that have rather more resonance in the south of England than the north. This is by no means a universal statement as both have areas of affluence and poverty (and to some extent the English regions are not the most natural of boundaries) but figures that suggest the north east of England gets a much greater benefit out of the financial settlement than Scotland - and the "Labour north east Mafia" is a term not without some numerical basis in the voting lobbies at Westminster - but it is rarely complained about. Now someone is bound to raise the point about the Scots having devolution etc... but spending throughout the UK has never been an absolute equal amount per capita. But of course there's no north east equivalent of the Barnett formula or the Scottish Parliament or so forth to give an angle to complaints about taxes in one part of the country financing services in another part.

It's also true that Scottish devolution and the Barnett formula have not been sold very well to many in England, making it possible for the wilder claims about the differences in spending (but then Scottish devolution is not alone in this regard - a lot of people seem to think the Greater London Assembly is a devolved assembly to give London its own devolution, rather than being in theory a metropolis wide council and in practice a waste of space talking shop). But would an English Parliament deliver the same for England? Or would it continue allocating its funds much as it does at present? Or would the north of England become the new whipping boy in the press?

The current devolution settlement is messy for the UK as a whole. There are grievances in one part, whilst attempts to find a settlement provoke accusations of partisan advantage and risking the future of the Union. A growing sense of perceived unfairness in different sections of the UK is not good for the country as a whole, especially when it is based on tilted figures and heavily appeals to one end of the country without pointing out the benefits at the other end.

Just what is the solution though? I'm not sure at all - short of the classic fudge of creating a public enquiry in the hope that it can go away and bring back the Holy Grail of a solution. A grand constitutional convention to try and sort out the numerous constitutional issues raised by not just devolution but also Lords "reform" and other changes sounds good in principle but would all the key parties in the UK participate and could a settlement with overwhelming consensus be found, or would parties bring the whole thing down because they couldn't get their pet demand (e.g. voting system changes) through?

Questions to which the answers seem more elusive every day...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Northern Echo newspaper has campaigned for years for an end to the barnett formula as the North of England suffers under it, so lets scotch that myth too.
This issue is not just about barnett or the West Lothian Question it is about a national English identity and an English government hopefully competent enough to promote England and the English in a positive manner.
We are just as English in the north as in the south, and we in England suffer exactly the same under New Labours anti English devolution project.New Labour are planning more powers for Wales and Scotland, come on get with it, forget the uk and get on board for England.


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