Monday 22 September 2014

The death knell for failed UK centralisation

It's a funny thing but I found myself suddenly emotional about the Scotland vote on Friday.  Having been far less convinced about the future of the union as maybe I should have been - what does nationhood mean in practice these days? - I happened to be on the phone to an office selling sheds in Edinburgh after the result come in.

I felt an overwhelming urge to say to the friendly Scottish voice at the other end how glad I was that we were still in the same country. I managed to restrain myself - perhaps I shouldn't have - but I am glad.

The prospect of being what I've always wanted to be - a Liberal little Englander - was, in the end, outweighed by three centuries of partnership and a faint memory of Night Mail, and Auden's poem set to Britten's music.

Three things now seem to be clear:

1.  The big loser of the whole affair was Ed Miliband, and it was pretty clear that he doesn't have the charisma to shift the nation, as he rather clearly failed to shift Scotland.

2.  You can't have major constitutional change without some kind of cross-party consensus, as Danny Alexander bravely pointed out over the weekend.

3.  Where is Charter 88 now that you need them?

A brief aside: I spent the 1992 general election helping to organise well over 100 local Charter 88 debates the week before polling, all about the UK constitution.  It was known as Democracy Day, and it had a huge impact, but little effect at the time.  Even so, five years later, a great deal of the consensus (PR for Europe, national parliaments etc) was enacted by the Labour government with Lib Dem support.

Nothing is quite so conveniently available off the peg this time.  But my overwhelming sense is that the period of centralised government by Whitehall - the invention of a combination of the Attlee government of 1945, driven ad absurdam by the Thatcher government of 1983 - is now over ("The gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves," Douglas Jay, 1937).

Somehow or other, the next government is going to have to find us a more effective, more innovative form of government, handing powers out widely to cities and counties, as part of a wider settlement that is far more important than the development of an English parliament at Westminster (another kind of centralisation, it seems to me).

Centralisation has been tried and failed.  I'm reminded of the Gladstonian doctrine here which distinguishes between Liberalism and Conservatism, and carved under the bust of the Grand Old Man in the lobby of the National Liberal Club:

"Liberalism is trust in the people tempered by prudence. Toryism is distrust in the people tempered by fear." 

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