Podium: The dangers of English chauvinism

From the Wainwright lecture by the Liberal Democrat peer to his party's Yorkshire and Humberside Conference

THE UNITED Kingdom is embarking on a constitutional revolution. Virtually every aspect of how we govern ourselves is being changed, in some cases fundamentally. And yet, there is a sense that the Government, lacking as it does a logical blueprint for reform, has embarked on a constitutional journey which has all the hallmarks of a mystery tour, to a destination unknown.

The effect of the constitutional changes in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London will inevitably increase their political bargaining power with Westminster. They will lobby hard to retain or increase the proportion of tax revenues which they enjoy. The consequence for the English regions is that - without the political clout which regional government would give - they will lose out.

If we accept that there is a strong case for regional government in the English regions, what form should it take, what powers should it have, and how should it fit in with other, existing levels of government?

We must begin by accepting that the UK's Constitution, even when reformed, will owe more to Heath Robinson than to a Jefferson or Hamilton.

This Government has no coherent vision for a reformed constitution. It is almost proud of the fact. And, in a sense, it is merely following a long British tradition of patch-and-mend pragmatism rather than logical or theoretical blueprints. If we accept a rolling programme of English regional government as part of the patchwork quilt which forms the British constitution, what would regional government in England look like?

The initial powers for regional assemblies would, I suggest, have many similarities with those of the Welsh Assembly, without the powers to make secondary legislation. They would have responsibility for health, education, housing, planning, transport, economic development, sport and the arts. This list immediately raises the question of the region's relationship with local government. There is a potential danger of conflict between the two, particularly if the Government proceeds to enable local authorities to have powerful elected mayors - and recent polling evidence gives strong support to this proposal. But I see the role of the region essentially to be to set out a regional strategy in the policy areas for which it is responsible, and to take over from the unelected and barely accountable regional offices of government departments the responsibility for ensuring that government expenditure is used to best effect. This would permit greater flexibility to respond to regional needs.

A regional assembly would of course be elected, and there are the usual compelling arguments for doing this by STV [single transferable vote] in multi-member constituencies. Should the assembly have tax-raising powers? The arguments for doing so are very strong. Tax-raising power is at the heart of all political power and, if regional assemblies really are going to have some degree of independence from Whitehall, an ability to raise at least part of their revenue directly has great appeal. The range of taxes which could be deployed sensibly at regional level is, however, quite limited.

The Scottish Parliament will be up and running in six months' time. Belatedly, English parliamentarians are scurrying round trying to agree the response. The Conservatives are half proposing a separate English Parliament which would mirror the Scottish Parliament. I would strongly oppose a new English Parliament. It would run the risk of becoming a depository of chauvinistic English nationalism of the worst kind.

Equally, I do not believe that it will be acceptable to English MPs - or Lords - to have Scottish participation in debates and votes on English (or English and Welsh) legislation. The resolution of this problem is, I believe, to be found using the model which Liberal Democrats use. Each debate at conference is either a federal or an English debate. When it is a Federal debate everyone can participate. In an English debate, only English representatives can. The same procedure should be adopted at Westminster.

How do we achieve regional government? It will not come without a struggle. This Government is not committed to it, and the Tories are opposed.

Some commentators are coming round. Jeremy Paxman, in his book on the English, concludes: "New nationalism is less likely to be based on flags and anthems. It is modest, individualistic, ironic, concerned with cities and regions as with counties and countries. In an age of decaying nation states it might be the nationalism of the future." But then, Jeremy Paxman is a Yorkshireman!

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