English votes for English laws

Cameron & SturgeonCameron has the Scottish woman making her demands already but he will have his own members demanding a bit of fair treatment for England before long. At the same time, the anti-austerity brigade have been exhibiting their yobbish behaviour outside Downing Street. There was a delightful tweet – was it from IDS? – that said they had protected important public buildings by signing them JOB CENTRE!  Enough to frighten the yobs away!

There is also some grumbling about our voting system with UKIP feeling hard done by for scoring 4 million votes but getting only one MP. Tough! The last thing this country needs is a weak government based on a coalition, particularly if it is a coalition of economically illiterate lefties like Labour, Plaid Cmry, the SNP and the loony Greens.

We need to keep the first-past-the-post system but we do need to look at our constitution in national, regional and local terms.  This is not going to be easy for a variety of reasons. The first one is the relative size of our constituent nations. England has 40 million voters; Scotland has 4.1 million; Wales has 2.3 million and Northern Ireland 1.2 million.  To put this in context, the Scottish woman wants Cameron to condition the EU referendum to be approved by each country. So, a majority of the 40 million English voters could vote to quit and be blocked by 7 million Scottish, Welsh and Irish voters. It is not even proportional!

The problems multiply, however, even before we think about the House of Lords!  At the moment, Scotland has its own parliament with 128 MSPs elected on a proportional system that was meant to create permanent coalition government but has patently failed!  In Wales, there is a Welsh Assembly with 60 members. The UK Parliament has 650 members, of whom 533 represent English constituencies; 59 are Scottish constituencies; 40 are Welsh and 18 are Northern Ireland.

If I lived in Scotland and wanted to contact my member of parliament, I am not clear who I would choose?  Would I go to the MP or the MSP?  I am increasingly unclear why we need two separate tiers of politicians if we are seeking a federal system that works for the whole of the UK. I suspect anything that reduced the number of career politicians in the country would be welcomed by most voters so my question is simple. Why not shut down the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and create a federal House of Commons where the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English members meet together for one or two days per week to debate national issues and to make national laws?   The Scottish MPs could then meet in Edinburgh for the rest of the week to deal with purely Scottish matters as could the Welsh, in Cardiff and the Irish, at Storemont.  It sounds easy but England remains the problem because of its scale.  Would there be an English First Minister?  Would he be the same person as the UK Prime Minister? Would there be an English education secretary as well as a national one? It goes on and on but mainly depends on the degree to which responsibilities can be accurately divided between the UK and individual countries.  You can see the tensions!

Despite the difficulties, I think it is worth a try but there is a second tier that I think needs reform and it is not the House of Lords. People are sick of remote and, many feel, unaccountable politicians. The most efficient and accessible bit of UK government is local government and it is time it regained some of the power and respect it used to enjoy.  There is a golden opportunity – probably once in a century – to reform the whole structure of government in the UK and to give it some credibility.

I met John Swinney (SNP Deputy Leader) a while ago and he said how, with 32 unitary councils in Scotland, they could call the leaders together and have a conversation with them.  Part of England is cursed with two tier government and a multiplicity of small district councils.  I am very clear that English local government could be much more effective with a smaller number of strategic authorities.  Scotland and Wales have unitary local government that seems to work.  There are two ways to achieve it in England.

The first is to hold a long drawn-out review that will pitch councils against one another and embroil MPs in local turf wars.  Knowing our propensity for compromise, the outcome will probably be a mishmash as bad as the present one.  The problem is compounded when you realise that the two tier areas (county and district councils) are mainly in the Conservative heartlands and, in many constituencies, the MPs’ supply of activists, willing to knock on doors at election times, is drawn from their councillors.  Converting two-tier areas to unitaries, particularly to larger, more strategic unitary county councils would wipe out quite a lot of the MPs’ shock troops!

Which leads to the second and, I think, more palatable alternative.  It is the Manchester model of creating large, strategic super councils with powers over transport, strategic planning, economic development and health and the funding that goes with them.  It seems to be George Osborne’s solution as well, given his recent announcement.  It would leave metropolitan areas like Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Tyneside – and many others – to form cooperative structures along the lines of the Manchester model, pooling some of their sovereignty through a combined authority with representatives from the constituent councils to make decisions.  The media have begun to understand the model and have started to refer to “city regions” but it certainly need not stop at cities.  Counties should have the opportunity to do the same and this is where we could undo some of the mischief of the two-tier system.  Cambridgeshire would be ready for it and is already some way towards the model.  Sadly Oxfordshire would not be there because the county, city and district councils spend too much time squabbling with one another to realise the huge power of cooperative working.  Perhaps one day they will see but it may be 20 years after Cambridgeshire.

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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