Sunday, May 28, 2006

Devolution, but how far?

A couple of interesting things have turned up on the constitutional reform front. MatGB at Not Little England has put his finger on one of the most interesting questions of the debate, namely

How do you bring power as close as possible to the people, recognise the existence of England as a unit, and ensure that a Parliament of 80% of the population does not destabilise or undermine the British parliament?
Similar thoughts have been bothering me, particularly when visiting the Campaign for an English Parliament. I've been a sympathiser for the CEP's aims for a while now - I reckon in fact that the advent of an English Parliament would be good not only for the English but also for the Celtic fringe, in that the loss of their subsidies will force them to embrace business in the way that their brethren in Ireland have done.

How then to square this with the ideas that I have put forward here and at Liberty Central (and that MatGB seems to share) for devolution of power down to the lowest practicable levels? What is the point of an English Parliament if all the power resides at community level? It's hard to think of many areas of policy which would sit naturally at an England level were this kind of constitution to be enforced - sport perhaps, but not much else. Then again, I think we need to ask why there is a perceived need for an English Parliament at the moment. The obvious answer is that it is needed to correct the constitutional imbalance created by the government's botched devolution of power to Scotland and Wales. This has created national assemblies for the Celts and therefore we need a national assembly for the English too. On the face of it this is a perfectly valid argument, but underneath it all there is a question of how much of the need for Celtic devolution was in fact national in character, and how much was local - that is to say it was a reaction to overcentralisation of power in London. Having lived in Scotland during the latter years of Margaret Thatcher's term in office, my impressions were that the major objections to her leadership were that she was instituting policies that wouldn't have been chosen by the Scots rather than the fact that her supporters were mainly English.

If then the need to localise power was in fact the important factor in the impulse to devolve power to the Celts, then the desire to devolve to an English Parliament is potentially thing to do. As Bondwoman points out in this piece at the Sharpener, an English Parliament governing a country of 50 million people would still be a very large, and probably very centralised, place. We should presumably conclude that more radical decentralisation is the answer.

If we imagine then that power is devolved to some lower level in England, where does that leave relations with Scotland? If Scotland retains the constitutional arrangements it has now, does that give it an advantage over an England in which power is much more widely dispersed? I would imagine that if ultimate power, and more specifically the power to raise taxes, resides with the UK government then such an arrangement would indeed place the English at a substantial disadvantage as the Scottish executive would be able to act as a powerful voice to influence UK government policy to the Scots' advantage.

However as Bondwoman notes in the same piece, the constitutional shambles will not be resolved without a significant measure of fiscal autonomy. The power to spend money needs to be matched by a power to raise tax. This kind of arrangement mirrors my own ideas on the shape of the constitutional settlement, where the tax-raising power resides at the lowest levels, with funds being passed up to the centre where necessary.

The answer then appears to me to be that there may in fact be no need for an English Parliament, because the constitutional imbalance can be righted and more local government delivered, without it.