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An Undamaged Union

 

Solving systematic issues in Westminster is a crucial part of salvaging what remains of trust in the union. Yet, what once were dependent countries run by London appointed Wales, Scotland, & NI offices are now fully functioning democracies with their own political dynamics and orthodoxies.

 

For the past three years, collaboration between the Scottish, Welsh, and British governments have broken down due to Boris Johnson’s premiership.[1][2] Welsh devolution has found its own stride through alternative COVID policies to England, advancing decades in a matter of months.[3] Devolved elections had record turnouts in-light of their newly found prominence. Whilst David Cameron and Theresa May were willing to give concessions to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, Johnson actively resented devolution, even rumoured as to wanting the rollback of devolved powers.[4] A further policy of repression against the devolved governments, as Liz Truss seems to suggest, will merely leading to a greater resentment of the interdependencies which bind Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and London together.[5] Rather, nationalist political parties such the SNP, Plaid Cymru, or Sinn Fein are able to harness the neglect felt by the electorate since they have already been legitimised. Originally, the nationalist parties were simply the parties of home rule, but have become a symbol of rejection from all three main British political parties through independence. Now that a legal independence referendum has been held in Scotland, these parties cannot be delegitimised, and attempting to do so will only heighten separatist sentiment. By outright refusing self-determination under any circumstances, the British government has only strengthened the nationalist message, polarising politics further.[6]  My remedy is certainly contrarian, as it would be the best way forward for the public, not politicians. In order to prevent the constitutional question from being a catch-all excuse for nationalist governments in Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, or Westminster to neglect difficult domestic policy, legislation should be written with clear goals required for an independence referendum to be held. This could include a “once in a generation” time limit clause, require a majority in the devolved parliament, and a certain level of support in polls.
 

Similarly, even limited devolution has proven successful at working towards bridging the economic divide between the nations.[7] If levelling up is ever to be achieved, local decisions need to be made locally, that means restarting what Blair began. The ultimate long-term goal of devolution must be to achieve a symmetrical system, one in which regional governments across England are able to recreate the unique dynamism that exists in the devolved nations. The absolute mess that is English local government needs a complete overhaul by wiping the slate clean, a standardised system without these strange combined authorities which very few people are able to properly participate and vote in.[8] This could be through a two or three tier system enforced across every section of England, with regional parliaments, similar to that of London. For even better results, allow regional governments to choose between a two and three tier system, further enfranchising localities to achieve self-determination. These regional parliaments are also an option as to the balancing or revising counterweight to a House of Commons, without the Lords. It may seem odd to focus on English devolution as part of how to save the Union, however the dominance of Westminster over England threatens every part of the UK. The only way to balance out a social and economic powerhouse like London is to give more decision making powers to localities. Levelling up funds are excellent but only people from those areas know how best to spend that money.[9] Achieving collaboration between North West & North East governments and Sturgeon would also be significantly easier than directly through Westminster, such as how the Scottish and Welsh governments have been. England is one of the most centralised states in the world; the main lesson learnt from devolution must be that it is a success when complete and ultimate trust is put in the hands of local people to decide for themselves.[10]

 

Finally, a democratic deficit remains in council elections, and in all devolved elections apart from Holyrood. Whilst the issues that local and regional government have theoretical control over are the most important to a majority of people, they are so limited by funding that it can be hard for a difference to be achieved.[11] Block grants originating from Westminster make up the vast majority of devolved money; this is a system that exists in very few Western democracies.[12] Since so much cash is granted by higher powers, if you attempt to aggressively innovate or deviate from the mean, the increase necessary in the few fundraising powers they do have would be political suicide. For example in Wales, half of all taxes are spent by councils but they only raise twenty percent of their own money, the rest coming from Welsh Government. Councils also do hold tax raising powers; however council tax is one of the most regressive wealth taxes in the world, and combined with the requirement to increase rates by ten percent for a two percent increase in council funding is insane.[13] This combined with over a decade of local government austerity has not only sent many councils into bankruptcy but also created a general feeling of dissatisfaction with all councils as residents do not feel listened to. The Barnett formula is even worse, it constrains democratically elected parliaments to paddle along with whatever Downing Street declares, such as with lockdown.[14] Devolved governments may hold their powers theoretically, but there is no practical way to use those powers in the way the voters are voting for.  Half of every council and parliament’s funding should come from their own rates.

 

Over the past weeks I have written about not only saving the Union and Westminster, but also about long-term reform that would strengthen democracy and prosperity. This is just one slice of the pie because healthcare, foreign policy, education, transport, benefits, and many more need vast and transformative reform. I believe however, that it is the most important of them all. Not due to some spellbinding notion of democracy, but because decision-making affects every other piece of legislation. Local people should make local decisions not simply because it is fairer, but since they also make better choices than London bureaucrats. In the final part of this series I will look at how that would work in practice.

04/08/22

P.S The entire piece is based off this report by the Institute for Government and my personal thoughts from reading it after COVID. I do disagree with a couple of their conclusions as well because of my post-COVID perspective, so I highly recommend reading it yourself.

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