ANY successful bid to establish a democratic voice for the North must be inspired by something more than an anti-Westminster attitude. We can all tell convincing stories about how we have not been properly understood by Westminster and Whitehall – and those stories can certainly whip up popular feelings. We have seen how powerful that reaction has been in Scotland electorally.
But Scotland has something which the English of the North need to address which has also been powerful electorally – namely, identity. As a committed Unionist, one loyal to the United Kingdom (my mother was a Scot, my father Welsh and I have lived and served all my adult life in the Church of England), I believe that the only way to avoid a polarisation of Scotland and England is to balance the needs of Scotland with the comparable entities of the regions of England.
Reading Vernon Bogdanor’s excellent book on the British Constitution, you realise that constitutional reform is an oxymoron when it comes to Great Britain. There is no constitution to reform. The many changes that have taken place in recent years have been done on an ad hoc basis. However the new Government, with its commitment to devolving powers, has the opportunity to be more strategic and to secure a new settlement in which the English sense that they are represented equally fairly within the Union.
Any Government that encourages localism must be encouraged by the fact that top-down initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse are met with bottom-up responses and I’d like to highlight seven important themes – identity, image, investment, innovation, infrastructure, internet and inclusivity.
Identity. Is the North of England an identifiable entity? Is its geographical and cultural diversity better expressed by three identities of the North East, Yorkshire and the North West or by one? Does the characterisation of the North by urban landscapes do justice to the vast swathes of countryside to be found north of the Pennines?
Image. As we clarify our identity in the north of England, we have to be mindful of our image and of how we are seen and known by others in the United Kingdom, in Europe and in the rest of the world.
Identity addresses the question about what binds us together; image addresses the question about how others see us. Both are important in establishing political, commercial and cultural relationships.
Investment. Attracting inward investment is vitally important to the future. This is inextricably linked to image. It is the image of a community that will influence the decisions of outsiders to invest.
Every year tens of thousands of young people vote with their feet to come to the universities and colleges of the North of England. Our motto for them should be “I came, I saw and I stayed”.
We already recognise the role of the universities in the Northern economy but as yet we have not found ways of turning the asset of young talent to the North’s advantage. Too many go south again. They should be starting businesses here generating wealth.
Innovation. In a competitive market the regions of the North, as with all the regions and nations of the UK, will need to be innovative in creating wealth. There’s a limit to what can be sustained by social enterprise and public sector investment. Within the Union, the regions and nations must be wealth-creators as well as wealth-sharers. Any devolution of power must embrace that responsibility.
Infrastructure. Decisions about housing, health, transport and education need to be led by the needs of the people who use them locally. At some stage there has to be a new public debate about where responsibility should lie for different pubic services.
Internet. Over the last five years, I have chaired three independent panels – on Hillsborough, Forestry and Gosport War Memorial Hospital. In each instance I have been awed by the way the internet has facilitated and transformed the involvement of the public in issues about which they care passionately. The internet brings a new dimension to democracy. We are on the cusp of a new age and only just beginning to realise the potential. Any initiative on representative democracy cannot ignore the internet which engages both the young and the old.
Inclusiveness. The diversity of the North is both an historic and a contemporary feature. Faith plays an important part in the integration of ethnic communities. One of the virtues of the Church of England is the way it has facilitated the integration of faith leaders into the civic leadership of cities and towns.The faith networks could bring into democratic representation ethnic groups previously disenfranchised.
I am very conscious that these are but brush strokes on a large canvas. The last point I would make is that leadership is central to the success of every enterprise,
In stimulating the future blueprint for our constitution we must acknowledge and answer the question begged by these seven ‘I”s. In so doing, we must also acknowledging the danger of inadvertently creating an eighth “I” – invalid. Any initiative will only be a definite step forward if it encompasses democratic legitimacy.
A charismatic mayor is insufficiently authoritative if not rendered accountable through a democratic mechanism and the public is not sympathetic to creating another level of bureaucratic administration.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that the two options which would capture this public mood are for either a number of formal groupings of the democratically-elected local authorities that balance the rural and the urban interests or a dissolution of the present democratic structure to form a number of larger authorities that can deliver on the seven “I”s; with both supplemented by creative use of the internet. I look forward very much to the debate.
* James Jones is the former Bishop of Liverpool and the keynote speaker at today’s Northern Citizens Convention in Huddersfield. He was also Bishop of Hull from 1994-98.