Via the Manchester Evening News, here’s a story that may have passed you by over the weekend: the Department for Transport has agreed a deal with Rail North, an alliance of more than thirty local councils and transport authorities, to share decision-making on Northern England’s rail franchises, which are up for renewal in 2016.
Now, it’s clear at this stage that this is shared decision-making: the DfT still has a role and it’s not clear what will happen if the two bodies disagree; and this is an agreement, not law: it’s not set in stone. But still, it’s significant that the DfT now no longer sees itself as the sole arbiter of rail services in the country, and it’s a small triumph for the localism agenda.
A few things occur: firstly, this is represents another move on the part of the UK Government to chip away at the old Government regions, which are now used predominantly for statistics and the European elections. The membership of Rail North encompasses the entire North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber regions (as you’d expect), but also various northern midland counties, with Staffordshire taking part from what was the West Midlands region (leaving behind the metropolitan West Midlands, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire); and Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire signing up from the East Midlands, leaving out Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland. A move like this, which crosses and even bisects regions on a matter as important as public transport helps to render the boundaries meaningless.
Secondly, it’s a step backwards in local accountability: John Major’s Government farmed out some Government functions to the regions; Tony Blair’s set up regional development agencies and regional assemblies and Gordon Brown even appointed Ministers for each Region, but with the exception of the Greater London Authority, the concept of a directly-elected Assembly that would oversee all regional functions died a rather humiliating death at the hands of the North East’s electorate, who were seen as the most enthusiastic supporters of an Assembly and still rejected the idea by a margin of more than three to one, with less than half of voters even opting to send the postal ballots back. But setting up what is essentially another quango comprised of representatives from the Councils seems like a retrograde step to the early days of the regions, and it doesn’t help that Greater Manchester has in effect returned to two-tier local government with the establishment of a Combined Authority, comprised of the Leaders of nine of the area’s councils and the Mayor of Salford. It certainly flies in the face of the UK Government’s ideas for more elected mayors and,of course, directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners.
But there’s a more important point: this is part of a narrative that starts with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales – the erosion of Westminster and Whitehall as the key centre of power in the UK.
Besides those bodies being created, and the GLA being set up, we’ve seen more powers move to Cardiff Bay and Holyrood, with more on the way to the Assembly and of course, a referendum on removing all Westminster authority over Scotland. And even if the No campaign win that vote, there’s been a remarkable shift in attitudes over the last 15 years.
Despite David Cameron’s protestations that the independence campaign is and should be a debate between Scots, it increasingly takes the form of Scottish and UK Government Ministers crossing paths and exchanging statements (William Hague’s visit being the most recent example). Labour, the official Opposition in both Parliaments, are involved in the campaign, but their involvement is getting increasingly overshadowed by the clash between the Governments.
When a row erupted over the regrading of GCSE exams, who crossed swords with Education Secretary Michael Gove? Was it then Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg MP? No, it was then Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews AM.
Who is touted as David Cameron’s most likely successor as Leader of the Conservatives? A sitting Minister? A Tory backbencher? No, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London.
And when David Cameron is on the defensive and needs to make a negative point about Labour policy, where does he turn? The Welsh Government under Labour’s Carwyn Jones.
But then, look at the Parliamentary CVs of the three main UK party leaders: of the three of them, David Cameron has the most experience, having been elected in 2001, four and a half years before he was elected Leader of his party and nine years before entering Downing Street, but has some experience as a Special Adviser to the last Tory Government. Ed Miliband was, of course, a member of Gordon Brown’s backroom team but didn’t get a seat in Parliament until 2005, five years before he assumed the Labour Leadership, while Nick Clegg was an MP for just two and a half years before he became Liberal Democrat Leader (though he had five years in the European Parliament behind him). The party leader with the most Westminster experience is the DUP’s Peter Robinson, who was first elected to the Commons in 1979 and would still be an MP today had the voters of Belfast East not voted him out in 2010.
Think about how much Parliamentary experience David Cameron’s predecessors as Prime Minister had before they entered 10 Downing Street: Gordon Brown had been an MP for 24 years, and a Government Minister for ten. Tony Blair’s first and only job in Government was Prime Minister, but he had been an MP for 14 years (and Leader of the Opposition for two and a half of those) before that. In fact, David Cameron is the Prime Minister with the least Parliamentary experience since William Pitt the Younger was appointed in 1783, almost three years after he was elected MP for Appleby.
So whichever way you turn, you see Parliament that is no longer the main source of authority in the UK, that Parliamentary experience is no longer a source of political credibility.
And there’s a wake-up call here, because whatever the outcome of the independence referendum, it’s not enough to replace just one centre of power – London – with three: London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The regions of each nations have their issues as well, whether it’s public transport in the North (and believe me, that will just be the beginning: the Richard, Calman and Silk Commissions prove that this process just keeps on going), the Lerwick Declaration confirming the possibility of further devolution from Holyrood to the three Islands Councils, or the longstanding semi-detachment between North and South Wales, most recently evidenced in the Daily Post’s decision to cut costs by no longer distributing the paper outwith its traditional North Wales market.
But politicians in the three centres haven’t truly grasped that: the DfT has its vague ‘partnership’ with a quango; the Scottish Government has promised nothing more than a working group to the islands and Carwyn Jones is too busy trying to get Silk implemented and wading into the Scottish referendum debate to deal with the problems that come with being, in effect, the First Minister of one nation but two countries.
It’s not just the London-Edinburgh or even the London-Cardiff dimension that matters any longer: it’s the London-Manchester dimension; the Edinburgh-Lerwick dimension; the Cardiff-Wrexham dimension. But the continued focus on London as the centre of the multi-national Union means that it’s not entirely clear that Westminster, Cardiff Bay or even Holyrood truly grasp what’s going on and the regional questions within each of the nations are coming increasingly to the fore. And it’s going to take the dissolution of the London-Edinburgh-Cardiff nexus for policymakers to wake up and really deal with the challenges facing them in their own backyards.
Sure, if there’s a No vote in Scotland, there might (if the Better Together parties can actually be trusted to deliver on their vague promises of action) be a discussion of what else can move north to Edinburgh. But England has a diverse population of 53 million people, living in regions with different economic and demographic pressures. Scotland’s population might be a tenth of that but has a land area of half of England’s, with a large percentage of the population concentrated in small area in the centre, producing a small yet diverse nation with different challenges facing each region. And Wales has a lot of work to do before its North and South are as well connected to each other as they are to the likes of Liverpool and Bristol respectively.
So each nation has a lot of work to do to produce a method of governance that works for all the different regions, and it’s not the national constitutional question but the status quo that’s getting in the way of that, as it has done for so long.
Quite simply, we need a major event to shatter the complacency that dogs officials in the three governments.
Something that will change our perspective of the countries we live in.
Something that will force us to really think about who we are, and how we are governed.
And that event could well happen on the 18th of September.