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'We dream of the devolution that you managed to get in Scotland'

'We dream of the devolution that you managed to get in Scotland'

“We aspire, we dream of the devolution that you managed to get in Scotland,” Simon Biltcliffe, co-leader of the Yorkshire Party, says.

Founded in 2014 (incidentally just a few months before the referendum on Scottish independence), the Yorkshire Party is campaigning for regional devolution and the creation of a Yorkshire Parliament.

“Devolution would be a wonderful step forward for the five and a half million people in Yorkshire, like it is with the five and a half million people in Scotland,” Biltcliffe adds.

While it is yet to break into the world of Westminster politics, the Yorkshire Party has had some small successes at local level. It now has representatives on four councils in Yorkshire and came a strong third in the two most recent mayoral elections in the region.

Biltcliffe himself – who took on the role of co-leader in October 2021 – was the candidate to be South Yorkshire mayor last year. But that doesn’t mean he’s sold on the idea.

Labelling the whole metro mayor system “a sop” and “flawed”, he says: “You need to have a regional assembly or regional parliament to be able to actually spread the load and have real, meaningful decisions made with real money that can kickstart whole areas of economic regeneration and better life chances.”

And while politicians in Westminster have recognised the need to boost the economies of regions outside the south east of England – it is where the Levelling Up agenda came from – Biltcliffe says this is not enough.

“For far too long, everything’s been London-centric,” he says. “And obviously when Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland got more devolution, it made England even more London-centric.

“Everything is decided in London and the madness of going cap in hand to bid for small pots of money in a competitive situation, it’s just no way to run a country. You can see the life chance outcomes as a consequence of that. The talent is equally distributed throughout the country but the opportunity isn’t, and that’s why devolution is so important.”

He has first-hand experience of these issues, having moved to London after university because “there we no jobs in Barnsley” back then. “Thirty-two years later, I’ve moved back. It is a fabulous place. It’s better than it’s ever been, but you know, you can see compared with the investment that goes down south, it’s behind. It’s getting there but we can get there a load faster with devolution.”

Dick Cole, leader of Cornish devolution party Mebyon Kernow, has a similar view on the current plans from Westminster. The UK Government’s Cornwall devolution paper, he says, is a “devolution deal with no devolution in it”. The consultation on that deal closed in February and the local council will consider it further in the months ahead.

For Cole and his party, it’s nowhere near enough. “We want a Cornish Parliament, but what’s being talked about is in effect just tweaks with local government. Devolution needs to be something meaningful.”

The devolution movement in Cornwall has almost as long a history as the one in Scotland. Indeed, Cole sees Cornwall as very much on par with Wales and Scotland. “Cornwall is a historic nation, the same as Wales and Scotland, it’s just we’re caught in a straitjacket of being treated as an English local government unit, which is dreadful.”

That, he says, has economic consequences. “We’ve ended up over the years being one of the poorest parts of the United Kingdom. Our GDP is still less than 70 per cent of the UK average. These things haven’t happened because of where we’re located, it’s much more complicated than that, and the way I see it, it shows 30, 40, 50, 60 years of failure by government to have the right policies in place.”

Cole believes bringing decision-making closer to home is part of the solution. “So many people feel so disempowered… We don’t really take decisions over the things that matter. Take for example things like planning, housing, second homes, communities where people can’t afford to live. We’ve got no control over any of that. All we can do is what local councils can do within the constraints of central government. So that is an obvious example.

“We want to be able to make the decisions for ourselves and I’m confident that people who live in Cornwall can do a better job running Cornwall than the people who live in London and think they know best.”

Biltcliffe agrees – and while devolution alone is no silver bullet for answering the various problems regions in England face, he says that “the fundamental principle is that people that get affected by these decisions should have a direct line of opportunity to vote for the people that will be making those decisions”.

While the current UK Government doesn’t seem to be interested in taking devolution further for either the nations or regions of the UK, Labour seems to be considering it. Former prime minister Gordon Brown published his report as part of his party’s Commission on the UK’s Future at the start of this year. It acknowledged “an appetite for more local power and voice” in communities across the UK.

“The United Kingdom will only succeed economically, politically and socially if it harnesses the talents and listens to the voices of all its people, ensuring that no part of the country is left behind, ignored or silenced,” Brown wrote.

How it does that remains the crucial question. While there may be an “appetite” for strengthening locals’ voices in decisions, there is no groundswell of support for options like regional assemblies. Labour says it is now consulting on how to go about delivering more powers and Brown’s paper concluded any change in power structures must be “built from the bottom up” and not “imposed from the centre”.

Biltcliffe says Labour’s intervention is “in the right direction”, but he adds: “It’s words, not deeds. There’s no detail of how we can get there.” He does acknowledge, though, that it can be tricky to have these conversations with the general public because devolution can seem like a “dry subject” – but he suggests the way to do it is talk about potential outcomes. “We need to turn the dialogue into ‘you want to have the best life chances and devolution can deliver it’,” he says.

He adds: “The status quo is just appalling for the vast majority of people in the UK. It’s not right. It’s not fair. And more importantly, it’s not effective.”

Professor Laura McAllister, currently co-chair of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, makes the same point. “The status quo isn’t really a status quo. It is not stable and it’s not secure and there’s no certainty, therefore, that the rules of operation that are currently in train will survive, never mind a generation, but a year or two,” she says.

The Welsh Government set up the constitutional commission at the end of 2021, asking it to develop options for reforming the UK’s constitutional structures. McAllister suggests it speaks to the fact that it has “probably been the most enthusiastic about improving the Union to sustain it”. In part, she says, this is because Wales has always had a Unionist government formed by Welsh Labour.

“And in fairness to Welsh Labour, most of the time they tried to be pretty good unionists,” she says, before adding: “But even then intergovernmental relations have been pretty appalling. The encroachment on devolved powers post-Brexit, particularly, but even to a degree before that because of the jagged edges of the settlement in Wales, have been problematic.”

McAllister explains that while there have been changes to the devolution settlement for Wales – which has always been a little more constrained than Scotland’s – these changes have been “deepening” existing powers rather than “widening” into new areas. This means the asymmetric devolution model in the UK has become even more unbalanced as Scotland has been handed more powers – over social security, for example – while the Senedd has fallen behind.

Like Cole, McAllister says one of the clearest indications change is needed is in the economy. “There are levers of policy which Wales simply doesn’t have. It’s got very limited borrowing powers. It’s got very limited fiscal powers, even compared to the Scottish settlement. Then there’s issues around welfare, which is not devolved in Wales, and when you put all of those things together and mingle it in with limited transport devolution, it only gives you control over so many switches on the dashboard.

“I think if you’re serious about improving the economic profile of Wales, there’s a very strong argument to say that there should be a real strategic approach to policy that allows the Welsh Government to operate more of the leavers in a strategic way that could deliver for Wales,” she explains.

The Commission published its interim report at the end of last year and is spending 2023 looking in more detail at three solutions: entrenched devolution (expanding the powers of the Senedd), federalism and Welsh independence. All of them involve change – but McAllister says there is a consensus in Wales that change is needed.

She believes it’s a conversation that is not presently possible in Scotland, because of the binary nature of politics here since 2014. “In Scotland, my take is it seems to be very polarised into the indy versus status quo option, whereas in Wales we’ve got a situation where there’s a recognition even amongst the sensible Unionist parties – or people who are sensible in the Unionist parties – that the Union can only survive if it’s modernised and made more balanced and that the voluntary nature of it is properly acknowledged. And what I mean by that is that intergovernmental relations and interparliamentary relations reflect that voluntary dimension.”

And she relishes the idea that the Commission allows Wales to start taking part in the discussion about the future of the UK in a way that it hasn’t really before, largely because focus is so often on the questions of either Scottish independence or Irish reunification.

She welcomes Brown’s recommendations for reform, but also warns his report is “very much written for a Scottish and English audience”. The discussion within Labour must not be just about “solving the Scottish issue” for the party, she says.

“We [should] think much more strategically about how we either decide to preserve the Union because that’s the will of the people, and if we decide to do that, then how do we do it? Or, if it’s the will of some parts, some nations within the UK, to leave the Union, then where does that leave the rest of us? And what do we want from that outcome?

“And I think just having that conversation at that level is a first as well, because it’s never been really conducted at a UK level. It’s always been Scotland being out of the Union, or Northern Ireland, and so on. And I think that would be our contribution, if we can have the debate at UK level.”

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