With the 2015 General Election looming and still no clear indication of the outcome for any of the major parties, the Conservatives have decisively begun to roll out the big guns. No matter how seemingly impossible it may be, the ‘Party of the South’ have decided to throw their weight into attempting to boost electability in the ever hostile North through the declaration, made by George Osborne yesterday, that action is being taken toward creating the mythical “Northern Powerhouse”. This rather grandiose plan is one which intends to create a lucrative economically developed belt stretching between Leeds and Manchester (with HS3 at its heart); the aim of this monolithic development being to act as a counterweight to the national influence of London.
Despite its unprecedented economic significance, this scheme will act as a catalyst for a far larger and politicised plan, one intending to introduce devolution to individual cities nationwide, with those in the North at the vanguard. This devolution of both political and economic power to major urban areas has already begun with the announcement on Monday declaring that Greater Manchester shall find itself with an elected mayor in the near future; the makeup of the end product should look somewhat similar to that of the Greater London Authority. Clearly, this is a step into the light for the Conservatives, whose record of providing any means of assistance for the welfare of the North was so brutally and apparently irreversibly tarnished by Margret Thatcher during her draconian reign. Even more significantly however, is the fact that this plan heralds the first step on the long road of English devolution.
The last experiment with autonomy and England was during the New Labour years with the Blair government offering out an ‘English Regional Assembly’ to the North East in 2004; a shockingly poor attempt to galvanize the voters during what was a considerably gloomy phase for Blair’s administration. The relevant referendum concluded outright rejection and a clear lack of interest, with the plan being swiftly scrapped. Since then, the English experience of devolution has been non-existent, going no further than a miniscule amount of electoral support being granted to the English Democrat Party, an organisation whose sole purpose is to fight for autonomy in England. They accumulated a grand total of 0.2% of the British vote in 2010, displaying adequately the traditional apathy held by the public.
Yet interest in the issue has been successfully invigorated as of 2014 by the dramatic events of the Scottish independence referendum. With the No Campaign having exposed very successfully the true travesty of the Barnett Formula, and national party leaders promising the reformation of a considerably unfair and unequal system of devolution from Westminster, people finally became switched on to an issue which has been given an unjustified lack of significant attention for years.
And what better way to give the people of England their first taste of autonomy than city devolution? To initially establish a nation-wide assembly or parliament would undoubtedly prove controversial; in these tough times of austerity, the taxpayers would most likely consider it a waste of both valuable time and money. This was certainly the case for Wales, whose Assembly has been attacked by critics as being little more than a talking shop, with its actual power wielding ability being grossly restricted by the Constitution. City devolution on the other hand, makes complete economic sense. It is impossible for a national governing body to know how to properly maximise economic or developmental potential within a local area; necessary specific knowledge and information with regards to local conditions and circumstance are often found lacking. Moreover, resources at a national level are fought over bitterly and this severely limited, with MPs often battling it out in order to secure any investment going for their own constituency at the cost of another. These issues, which have resulted in chronic cyclical underdevelopment in the vast majority of British cities, cannot be properly addressed unless governmental grants are passed down to respective local legislative authorities.
Devolution on this smaller individual scale could act to normalise and familiarise the English public with the concept of an eventual national body, an institution long overdue, which would undeniably enhance the democratic nature of our governmental framework.
Whether the concept of city devolution and its pending implementation is merely a politically pragmatic attempt by the Conservatives to snatch votes from UKIP, or indeed Labour, from their heartlands rather than an ideologically loaded or economically minded last swoop before their potential fall from power in 2015; we shall never know. Yet what is clear is that regardless of the motives behind this bold move, it is a healthy step forward for British and more importantly English politics; one which will finally see some appropriate action being taken in order to answer the forever pressing West Lothian Question.