Let’s talk about devolution

I’m quite a fan of devolution and the idea that local areas (or Nations, if we’re talking in a UK context) should be able to determine their own priorities and aspirations. So you’d think I’d be pretty pleased with the proposals from the Smith Commission for Scotland to be given a wide range of new powers including setting income tax, lowering the voting age and control over various benefits. And in some respects I am pleased, as I believe these would move things forward considerably. However I also have major concerns over the approach being taken to Scottish devolution and the rest of the UK.

Whilst I have no doubt that Lord Smith of Kelvin has given due consideration to the proposals, his remit was to focus on Scotland. My concern is that in doing so, the wider implications for the UK as a whole and the English regions and cities in particular, are being rushed through.

The Coalition have been pursuing a devolution agenda since 2010 with the Localism Act the legislative cornerstone of their approach. I have in the past been critical of the lack of appetite for economic localism within this as it is my firmly held view that without economic devolution you cannot expect to realise meaningful social or political devolution.

The lessons from the Eurozone area should alert us to the damaging consequences of economic union which is detached from political union. Whilst the situation in the UK is the mirror image of this – existing economic union with growing political separation – the lessons are still relevant. We need to think through what the implications of economic devolution are to all parts of the UK – not just Scotland.

I know David Cameron has said he will plough ahead with English devolution in parallel, but I do not believe that the approach has been fully thought through. State control over economic and social affairs of our lives has become increasingly centralised over the last 100 years. Before the First World War citizen’s had very little day to day contact with the State at a national level, with the exception of possibly the Post Office. Almost everything else was devolved to a local or regional level.

When David Miliband was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government he used the phrase ‘double devolution’ to describe transfer of power from Whitehall to the Town Hall and from Town Hall to local people. Devolution to Councils was conditional on power being handed on to local citizens, rather than simply concentrated in a different political bureaucracy. Too much of the current debate appears to have forgotten this more radical ambition.

The suggestion that you can unwind a hundred years of centralisation across the whole UK with just a swiftly held Commission is absurd. The decisions that we take over devolution now will affect what happens for many years to come. The proposals must be properly debated by the public and the full implications considered carefully. Citizens across the UK have the right to understand what is being proposed and how it will affect them.

It’s not possible to disconnect what happens in Scotland from what happens in the rest of the UK. This is not simply about ‘English votes on English issues’ it is much more profound. It is about democracy, our economic prospects and the relationships between social and economic areas (communities). Change cannot be rushed nor can it be piecemeal.

2015 will be the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta the bedrock of democracy in the UK – and a beacon for democracy across the world. It will also see a General Election and a new Government being elected. What better opportunity for us to have an honest, open and meaningful debate about the future of our democracy?

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