Scotland’s independence referendum is spurring the desire for political devolution in England

Arianna Giovannini and Joanie Willett explore the uneven path of English regionalism, focusing on two cases: the North East and Cornwall, during and after the New Labour government. Scotland’s referendum has reminded people that there are alternatives, and that regional devolution is a possible solution to a London-centric problem. England’s regional identities and inequalities are only going to become more visible and more politicised the closer we get to September.


Will we see renewed commitment to devolution to English regions? Credit: Ian Robertson CC BY NC 2.0

When we wrote our article on ‘The Uneven Path of UK Devolution’ English regionalism and political decentralisation – intended as a way to address the exclusion of England from the process of political devolution initiated by New Labour in 1997 – was off the agenda.  A few voices were calling for English devolution, but these were for the most part the remnants of an old public debate rather than participants in an on-going national conversation – reinforcing the views of those who claimed that England was (and would remain) ‘the dog that never barked’.  However, the imminent Scottish independence referendum has altered the contemporary context, meaning that the role and place of England (and/or its regions) within a decentralised and potentially dis-United Kingdom have (re)gained prominence in the public as well as in the political debate. Hence, it is interesting to look at ‘what went wrong’ with England’s regional agenda during the time of the New Labour government which made devolution one of its flagship policies.

We have explored the idiosyncrasies at the basis of the uneven path of English regionalism during this period, looking at two cases: the North East and Cornwall. What was striking about these two areas was that although they can be both defined as ‘peripheries’ – especially due to their cultural, social and economic remoteness from the centre – with strong territorial identities, their distinctiveness was interpreted in divergent ways by New Labour. We found it particularly interesting that whilst the North-East was given a referendum by the government – which was subsequently rejected – Cornwall had a popular petition asking for devolution and a Cornish assembly, but this was largely ignored by Westminster.

Looking at the movements for directly elected assemblies in the two areas, the North East campaign was intrinsically ‘elite’ was more in tune with the mechanisms of the centre – focussing on central government policies and a regional agenda which saw devolution primarily as a way of enhancing regional competitiveness in the national market-place and a necessary part of the New Public Management doctrine. By prioritising lobbying central government, the North East campaign ended up endorsing (however involuntarily) New Labour’s top-down approach to regionalism, leaving emancipatory politics and regional identity claims aside.  However, the very weak proposal for a regional assembly presented by the government clearly showed that the Cabinet had no intention to cede any real political power to the North East (or to any other English region). Hence, the North East campaign was unsuccessful in influencing decision making at the centre, while also failing to create any sort of effective ‘bottom up’ mobilisation in the region.

The campaign in Cornwall by contrast was a popular movement rooted in emancipatory politics and ‘internal colonialism’ arguments, whereby devolution was (and still is) motivated by the belief that central government overlooks and neglects local needs, and that only devolved decision-making can counter this. The irony is that it was the North East that was believed to be the region with the strongest sense of regional identity in England – and therefore the best place to deliver a regional assembly. Nevertheless, in 2004, the people of the North East rejected the opportunity in the referendum.  In the event, centralised control over the regional agenda and the final proposal for a regional assembly meant that the campaign for a North East assembly focussed too much on the centre.  As a consequence it failed to grab the popular imagination and to ‘give political meaning’ to the nascent regional identity of the region.  On the other hand, Cornwall, which had a real bottom up support for devolution, was not given the chance to vote in a referendum.

This was due to several reasons. From the point of view of the government, the North East and Cornwall had two distinct political and electoral weights. The first was a Labour stronghold, whilst the latter showed little support for the party. Besides, the ‘managerial governance’ and regionalisation approach tacitly but strongly supported by the New Labour’s mainstream allowed little space for political devolution behind the successful Scottish and Welsh Assemblies.

In essence, the story of the failed North East referendum and the rejection of the bottom-up claims advanced by Cornwall shows that during the New Labour era political devolution was endorsed by the party not because it met its ideological values and views of territorial politics. Decentralisation was meant as a tool to address the Scottish (and, more marginally at the time) the Welsh Questions – following the idea advanced by Enoch Powell and re-emphasised by Tony Blair that ‘power devolved is power retained’. New Labour understood devolution as a way of retaining their dominance in Scotland and Wales, not as a tool to nurture emancipatory territorial politics and local identities across the whole country. England was never meant to be included in the plan because neither the North East nor Cornwall posed any real ‘threat’ to the power of New Labour – which was reflected in the way in which the government hampered the North East referendum and disregarded the Cornish petition.

So in the years of New Labour government after 2004 the regional devolution agenda was effectively shelved – even for areas like Cornwall that had demanded for it. Thereafter, decentralisation was promoted only to deliver regional economic development goals, mainly through the work of centrally driven institutions such as Regional Development Agencies and Government Offices in the Regions. Later, in 2010 the new Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government abolished the old regional machinery of RDAs and GOs – at which point it appeared that the fate of regional devolution had been sealed once and for all.

However, the current debate over the Scottish independence referendum and the future of the Union has prompted public discussion on who the English are, and what their place in the Union should be. A recent IPPR study showed that the English are now more aware of what the other nations of the UK have (i.e. devolution, and potentially independence) and what they have not (i.e. directly elected institutions ‘for their own’, other than Westminster). In fact, more and more English consider the current structure of the UK as unfair and believe that a redefinition of the governance of England is much needed.

Such ‘awakening’ is prompting a debate on the meaning of Englishness, the relevance of its regional and territorial dimensions, and the kind of institutions that would best suit the interests of the English. Mainstream parties find themselves disoriented, and have so far been unable to address this novel concern about the future of England in the Union. On the other hand, other political organisations (like the English Democrats, or the Campaign for an English Parliament) are trying to catch the momentum, putting forward ideas of radical reform and the creation of an ‘all English’ parliament. However, these proposals are not very popular among the public, especially due to their association with the ‘far right’ and to the ‘biased’ and southern-centric view of Englishness they promote. At the same time, regional movements and organisations are re-shaping and consolidating their structures and aims, planning new strategies to achieve regional devolution. Unsurprisingly, the North of England and Cornwall (i.e. the two parts of England with a stronger territorial identity) seem to be particularly active in this sense.

Non-party-political groups such as the Hannah Mitchell Foundation and the Yorkshire Devolution Movement are campaigning for a democratic government in the North of England and to secure a directly elected regional assembly for Yorkshire respectively. This shows that unlike New Labour’s flirt with regionalism, a Northern sense of territorial belonging and distinctiveness (within England) has not faded away. More and more people in the North of England seem to look at the example of their next-door-neighbour (Scotland) and have started to think what they too could gain from devolution. These views are reinforced by a growing sense of alienation from a Tory-led Coalition government which does not represent the interests of the North. Such ferments could prompt real ‘bottom-up’ mobilisation for regional devolution in the Northern regions. This could be likely to have more resonance with ‘the centre’ because it would more effectively challenge its power.

Similarly in Cornwall, territorial identity and the desire for political devolution has not gone away in recent years. If anything, Cornish identity has become more confident and accepted as a part of the fabric of everyday life, and the region was recently awarded ‘National Minority’ status under the European Framework for the Protection of Minorities. Nevertheless, a thriving identity has not altered the fact that Cornwall is economically very deprived (a recent Eurostat report finds that it is poorer than Poland). Having its 6 MPs in the Coalition government has not created a sense that Westminster pays any extra attention to Cornish issues, so emancipatory arguments based on long term neglect still resonate strongly. This is interesting because the Cornish seats are the kind of marginal ones that the Conservative party needs to gain or keep if they are to win a general election in 2015. For many people in Cornwall, an English tier of government is not going to make any difference to on-going perceived neglect and a Cornish Assembly is still seen as the only way forward to develop a strong voice for Cornwall.

So where does this leave English devolution and regionalism in the United Kingdom of today?  Clearly the Scottish independence debate has created a space for questions about the state of the Union. Even without it, there was considerable disquiet about the over-centralisation of wealth and power in the South East. But Scotland’s referendum has reminded people that there are alternatives, and that regional devolution is a possible solution to a London-centric problem.  England’s regional identities and inequalities are only going to become more visible and more politicised the closer we get to September. With an election looming next year, political parties of all stripes will be compelled to address this. So it is very likely that the dog will finally bark.

Note: This post was originally published on the PSA Insight blog. It represents the views of the author and does not give the position of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before responding.  

imageJoanie Willett is a Lecturer in Environmental Politics with the Environment and Sustainability Institute and the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter.  Her work explores the relationship between identities and the economy, often with regards to sustainable communities, regional development and territorial politics.  She uses complexity theory, the new materialisms, art, phenomenologies and some aspects of posthumanist thought to consider these questions.

imageArianna Giovannini has recently been awarded her PhD on devolution, the English Question and the case of Northern England from Leeds Metropolitan University. Her research focuses on the politics of territorial identity, decentralised forms of government, and regionalist/nationalist parties and movements, with an empirical focus on the UK and Italy. She is co-convenor of the PSA’s Italian Politics Specialist Group. She also teaches Politics, Research Methods and Social Science at the University of Sheffield International College. She tweets on @AriannaGi.

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