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Golden opportunity beckons – whatever the Scottish referendum result

September 17, 2014

Excellent article in today’s Western Morning News

Golden opportunity beckons – whatever the Scottish referendum result

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 16, 2014

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Dr Joanie Willett argues that with the result of this week’s Scottish referendum on a knife-edge the time is right for a more federal Britain.Three years ago, my colleague Arianna Giovannini and I wrote a research paper for a political academic journal, looking at the Assembly campaigns in Cornwall and the North East. We were really pleased that a good journal took the piece as it felt a bit like we were looking at history when we wrote it.

In the spring of 2011, no one was talking about regional devolution anymore, which we claimed had been effectively killed off by New Labour’s reluctance to hand over any real political control.

The Scottish Independence referendum has changed all of this. For the past year at least, it feels as if we have talked about little else. The situation is: if Scotland goes, there is going to be a massive amount of hand-wringing in England, whilst Wales will get restive, start flexing its muscles, and begin talking about Independence too. In the meantime, many parts of what I will loosely call the ‘English Administrative Area’ will have yet more ammunition for their argument that British government as it is now, is far too centralised.

We all know about Cornwall’s long running campaign for a Cornish Assembly. But Cornwall is not alone in being fed up with the haemorrhage of power from the regions towards Westminster that has happened over the last 30 years. Wessex, Yorkshire, and the North East all have their own campaigns for devolution.

The problem is that for all of the talk about North/South divides, HS3, and city regions; many parts of Britain feel that their needs are not properly attended to. It is also no coincidence that whilst London is one of the richest parts of the EU, other regions – such as Cornwall – remain desperately poor, and a Eurostat report in May found that Cornwall is “poorer than parts of Poland”. That territorial inequality within the UK has reached such epic proportions tells us something about the consequences of Britain’s over-centralisation.

Part of the reason behind this is because resources, investment, and the brightest talent migrate towards London and the South East, perceiving that this is where “things are happening”. Political power becomes economic power and the provinces are presented as increasingly marginal, unimportant, backward and parochial, reproducing London’s dominance.

At the same time as county councils have seen their powers reduced to a shell of former times, decimated further by years of austerity; regions have become increasingly confident about their identities because they play an important role in ensuring that local economies are competitive in the global economy. Local products carry the brand of the region from which they originate, protecting them from copy-cat products, encouraging sales through association with the symbolisms, history and imagery of the locality within which they are made.

For example, the Cornish pasty (and I’m sure the Devon version is also very nice…) is sold world-wide, but can only be marketed as Cornish if it is made here.

This kind of thing is happening across many other parts of Britain too, and means that local identity is not just important for the people who live there, but that is useful as an economic development tool. In turn, local identities are becoming valued in ways that they never were previously.

Paradoxically, whilst many parts of Britain are increasingly comfortable and vocal in their identities, they are also becoming more and more politically marginalised.

It is no surprise therefore, that Yorkshire’s devolution campaign bases its rationale on the need for a cohesive and unified body to better represent Yorkshire’s inhabitants, and provide a stronger voice for the region.

Equally, the Cornish Assembly campaign calls for “…a greater say in how we are governed…. Setting out the right democratic priorities for Cornwall (to) provide a stronger voice for our communities in Britain, in Europe and throughout the wider world”.

These are not parochial campaigns to preserve some kind of imagined rural idyll, resistant to change and reluctant to join the 21st century. Instead, these are campaigns that are about building stronger regions within the UK, providing the space for innovation and dynamism through better representation of citizens, and enhanced visibility in the sites of power.

And regional devolution movements have never had such a good opportunity to make their case heard. Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, Westminster politicians finally understand that Britain needs some form of decentralisation.

However, the offers on the table are rather weak and unsatisfactory. The Conservatives focus on the North/South divide, without addressing the South-East/everywhere else divide. Labour suggests “city regions”, or possibly “county regions”. But the powers on offer are minimal and do little for political decentralisation. The Liberal Democrats have recently supported “metro Mayors” which would not be limited to cities, but could also be applied to rural areas, and which essentially give more powers to local authorities. But this does not adequately address the direct relationship between regions and central government, with no opportunity for mayors to come together, deliberate, and decide on the distribution of resources on a UK-wide basis.

In a brave new world where we will see big changes in how Britain is governed whatever the result of Scotland’s vote, tinkering around the edges doesn’t go far enough. Political decentralisation is back on the agenda with a vengeance. This is a golden opportunity to discuss what a more federal Britain might look like.

Dr Joanie Willett is a lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus

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