Saturday, November 06, 2004

Throwing darts at a white elephant

The "No" campaign in the North East regional assembly referendum had one of the most amusing electoral campaigns I have seen - namely the inflatable white elephant that went on a tour of town centres across the region. Ultimately, the perception that the Assembly was going to be nothing more than a talking shop doomed the referendum. The astounding margin against it (I never expected the Yes campaign to win, but was surprised by just how overwhelming the result was), however, indicates that there was absolutely no popular will for the Assembly. That despite their much-vaunted cultural identity being different to the rest of England - something, incidentally, I very definitely believe in - they have no desire to be represented differently. Even if the people of the North East had been given powers similar to those of the Scottish Assembly, I still think that the results from Thursday suggest that a referendum would have been unsuccessful.

Despite this, I still believe that I was right to vote yes. I agree that the powers of the proposed Assembly were limited, although greater local co-ordination of transport and more accountable and public business planning were desirable ends. Whether that would justify the cost of them or not is a different issue, and one I do not know precisely where I stand. What I do know is that I wanted the regional assembly to be put in place so that we could then campaign for a greater allocation of powers from the central government. As it stands, a new referendum cannot be held for seven years, and in reality it will take much, much longer before plans for regional devolution can be introduced again.

Anthony Sampson, writing in today's Independent, makes a very good point that the regeneration of the North is undependent on regional assemblies, and that instead a community confidence and a greater drive is needed. The basis of this thesis I agree with entirely - the North as a whole became used to seeing itself as reliant on State help following the collapse of the traditional industries. That said, I am not entirely blaming them for this, as I feel that funding to the North has been shoddy and unacceptably low. Speaking about the North-East in particular, the region has been decimated since Thatcher launched her witch-hunt of the mining communities, and many parts of Durham and Northumberland are now highly depressing places. Indeed, 7 out of the 10 most deprived areas in the country are from this region; the North East is the poorest region in the country and yet the Barnett formula sends money away from the region towards Scotland and Wales.

The attitude of many Scots is particularly infuriating. I travel to Scotland fairly regularly, and like the people there immensely. However, amongst some groups there is a nasty anti-English sentiment. Nowhere in England would you find a car sticker saying "Dump your rubbish in Scotland"; sadly, I cannot say the inverse is also true. I know of many Englishmen asked why they are taking Scottish jobs - this ignoring the fact we are all part of the United Kingdom. And in any case, it's not as if Darlington, to take a random example, isn't full of Scotsmen in regular employment. And yet, the freedom afforded to the people of this region by their Assembly allows them to use English money to spend on getting rid of up-front tuition fees, better healthcare provisions for the elderly, and so on.

Allowing for the fact that devolution is a process we cannot go back on, is it right that some areas of the UK should have markedly better provision than others? Returning to the old West Lothian question, should Scottish MPs have the right to vote on English matters when English MPs have no influence over Scottish ones? Any good political system would act with a certain degree of uniformity over all its people - even if that uniformity allows great latitude in the taking of local decisions. One reason for the institution of regional assemblies across the country, therefore, is that will release many of the anomalies from the current constitutional operations.

But my major motivation behind such staunch support of regional assemblies is that I believe that the closer you get to local control of affairs, the more optimal a system of government is. This may lead to increasingly hierarchical strutctures, for another concurrent belief of mine (and one that I believe to be wholly consistent) is that some powers need to be delegated upwards because they affect a much wider area than that constrained by national boundaries. However, part of my belief in libertarianism is that the individual must be free to exercise as much influence over his own life as possible. And if this means giving a more local basis of control to the public services, then I am all for it, provided that there is sufficient supervision from the national government to ensure that minimum standards are adhered to (although, of course, people will have the right to "vote with their feet" if they do not like regional politics - seen, for example, in the exodus from what Mark Steyn calls 'Taxachussetts' to a less punitive tax regime in New Hampshire). No national system of government can truly achieve what popular government is supposed to - the expression of the popular will.

It must seem ironic I can use that phrase to support regional assemblies at a time when the expression of the popular will has been to reject them. Yet, my optimism leads me to believe that despite the crushing rejection of regional assemblies for the time being, a well-organised system of devolution, giving real local power to local governments, and a clear organisation of hierarchical power, can succeed in this country. What is more, it would improve engagement with the political process at a time when this is badly needed, for politicians on the local level would have true power to be held accountable for. I dearly hope this will not be a crusade that joins the long list of personal opinions in the file "lost causes". But if we are to trust the people of this country, then we need to give them a much greater control of their own destiny. And we can start by taking turns to throw darts to burst that blasted white elephant.