Devolution for the North-east? The possibility that Scotland will govern itself has re-invigorated those in the north of England who want more local powers

Campaigners are trying to breathe new life into the regional devolution movement

Jamie Merrill
Sunday 27 April 2014 11:54 BST
North wind: Visitors watch the parade yesterday at the Northumberland Gathering
North wind: Visitors watch the parade yesterday at the Northumberland Gathering (Mark Pinder)

Scotland has a parliament and soon, possibly, independence; Wales has an assembly, and last week the Cornish were recognised as a national minority. Now, with their eyes firmly on events in Edinburgh, campaigners in the northernmost counties of England are looking towards devolution.

Regional assembles were to be the final piece in the last government's devolution jigsaw, but were scrapped after voter indifference and referendum No votes in 2004. But, with Scottish independence on the horizon and a general election a year away, small but vocal groups from Cumbria to Northumberland and Yorkshire are trying to breathe new life into the regional devolution movement.

Leading the charge in Northumberland is the former Labour MP Hilton Dawson, who is to form a new party for the North-east next month. "The region needs its own party to provide a strong voice to speak exclusively for it," said the former Westminster insider, who stepped down from parliament just before his Lancaster seat went blue in 2005.

He added: "We have some of the most disadvantaged areas in the country here, but the Westminster system is failing us entirely. We want some of what the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru have got. If they can have devolved success, why can't we?"

Mr Hilton and his admittedly small band of followers insist the new North-east party isn't calling for independence and doesn't want a "currency or military or anything like that". Rather its voice, along with others across the North, will call for control over public services and devolved democracy.

In Northumberland, said Mr Hilton, the need for devolution should be obvious for all to see: "Sadly the caricature is true; the vast majority of the bright and talented officials, mandarins and representatives based in London have no idea what the rest of the country is like beyond Watford."

He added: "You just have to drive down the A1 from Scotland to Northumberland to see how badly off we are. In Scotland they have decent quality roads, quality services and are at ease with themselves, moving together, while in Northumberland we have the most dangerous cart-track in Europe. That road is a metaphor for neglect by the main Westminster parties."

Just off the A1, so central to life in the North-east, is Morpeth, where this weekend thousands of Northumbrians are celebrating their culture and history as part of the yearly Northumbrian Gathering. The pageant's organiser, Northumbrian folk musician Kim Bibby- Johnson, is not surprised at this type of revival taking place in the North-east: the area has a "strong cultural heritage" and "historical" links to life north of the "modern border".

She said: "We don't have the same marketing divisions that Scotland has for the 'tartan culture', but we have our own distinct local way of life and culture …. We were part of an independent kingdom in the Anglo-Saxon period, long before the idea of the separate countries of England and Scotland."

Paul Salveson, chair of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, which campaigns for regional devolution for the north, said the Scottish Independence vote had given the movement renewed impetus. "The North-east has been scarred by the negative result of the 2004 devolution referendum, but that was limited devolution and 10 years is a long time," he said. "The moves to Scottish independence highlights the marginalising of the north of England. It's something that's tangible to people of all political parties in the North."

Support also comes from unlikely quarters, including Conservative Borders MP Rory Stewart. He is "deeply sympathetic" to regional devolution and would be "tempted to stand for something that didn't involve going Westminster" if devolution came to the North-west. "We've inherited a medieval system of government, which is really struggling to work in a modern democracy. What's happening north of the border in Scotland is advertisement not for independence but for the benefits of autonomy."

It is a message that echoes in Yorkshire where this month businessman Richard Carter formed the Yorkshire First party to contest European elections and call for devolution, even though Mr Carter himself lives in Oslo and apparently has no plans to return home.

A poll for the pro-devolution campaign group Devolve Deliver last week showed 65 per cent of voters think "too much of England is run from London". The findings come as the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, promised to put "city-region" government at the heart of his party's attempt to rebalance growth in the UK. According to Labour the plan represents "the biggest economic devolution of power to England's great towns and cities in a hundred years".

However Jonathan Blackie, a lecturer at Northumbria University and the former regional director for the Government Office North East, warned: "I wouldn't say the talk in the bars and buses of Newcastle was about devolution quite yet. There is a sense of distance from London but the North-east possesses a dynamism it didn't 20 years ago."

Mr Stewart said that while "people feel that the British political system is broken and that Westminster dominates … they aren't ready to go all-out and vote for radical constitutional change just yet".

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