William Wallace: Brexit will shake the union of the United Kingdom, but it will also worsen the growing divide between rich and poor

Should Yorkshire devolution be part of the United Kingdom's post-Brexit strategy?
Should Yorkshire devolution be part of the United Kingdom's post-Brexit strategy?
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ONE Brexit-supporting placard outside Parliament read “Save England’s Constitution” — but you cannot save something that does not exist.

After the confused debate on an English Parliament and English votes for English laws, it remains doubtful that England as such is an appropriate framework for devolution in a looser UK.

Jake Berry is the Northern Powerhouse Minister.

Jake Berry is the Northern Powerhouse Minister.

The EU referendum highlighted the political and social divisions within England, and we all know that regional equalities between English regions are the widest in any European country.

Flows of EU funds to universities, companies and other bodies in the poorer regions partly help to redress this imbalance, but there is no guarantee that they will continue after Brexit.

Unlike the Barnett formula, there is no political framework for fiscal redistribution within England. The bias in infrastructure spending towards the South has become a highly visible issue across the north of England in recent years. Disillusion with the Northern Powerhouse — now an empty slogan — is widespread.

The Government’s approach to devolution within England is top-down, based on city-regions and elected mayors.

Would House of Lords reform give the English regions more influence at Westminster?

Would House of Lords reform give the English regions more influence at Westminster?

For the north of England, they are becoming steadily more confused. The Minister for the Northern Powerhouse (Jake Berry) has proposed the establishment of a “Department for the North”, with its own Secretary of State to sit alongside those for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — a major administrative change, if not a constitutional one.

Can Ministers tell us whether this reflects the Government’s current position and when they will provide more detail on this interesting idea?

Meanwhile, devolution for Yorkshire is stalled, with the same Minister insisting that Yorkshire has to have four city regions, while the overwhelming majority of Yorkshire local authorities, across all parties, support a “One Yorkshire” approach. Can Ministers tell us when we may expect a coherent government response to this proposal?

The Prime Minister repeatedly claims that the Conservatives are “the party of union”. It is much more the party of England, and predominantly of southern England at that.

Senior Conservative Ministers overwhelmingly represent Home Counties constituencies. One of the major flaws in our first past the post voting system is that it exaggerates the regional differences between our major parties, with Labour representing the North and the industrial Midlands of England, together with Scotland and Wales, and the Conservatives the comfortable and wealthy South.

Furthermore, reductions in the powers of English local authorities in recent decades and cuts in central support for their funding, which are still continuing, have left England the most centralised state in the democratic world.

The shrinkage of local democratic government has contributed to popular disillusionment with politics as such, and the psychological distance from England’s west and north to London has fuelled discontent further.

Of course, it is not easy to agree on a map for devolution to English regions across the Midlands and the South — but, with London as a city now an outpost of devolution in an otherwise centralised England, we have to address the issue.

Devolution within England, as well as to our other three nations, should also feed into constitutional reform at Westminster. I have been one of a long succession of Ministers who have tried to promote reform of the Lords, and I still bear the scars of that experience.

A stronger second Chamber, more effectively checking executive power, would appropriately be constituted on the basis of regional representation, whether directly or indirectly elected, as the coalition Government proposed.

However, both Conservative and Labour front benches continue to oppose a stronger second Chamber for fear that it would limit the power of a Government — executive sovereignty, of course — with a majority in the Commons to push through their legislation unamended.

Brexit will shake the union of the United Kingdom, but it will also worsen the growing divide between the richest and poorest regions of England. That divide, and the disillusion it has bred, must be addressed through constitutional change, as well as through economic redistribution.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer and former Minister who spoke in a House of Lords debate on the Future of the Union. This is an edited version.