The nine English regions, artificial creations of the European Union, were abolished for administrative purposes in 2011 and with them, thankfully, the idea of devolved regional governments in England died too. However, the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London remain. Although they do not represent artificial regions, they are nevertheless an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer and undermine the very existence of the United Kingdom.
The West Lothian question, a constitutional anomaly caused by devolution, is most often raised in relation to Scottish MPs in Westminster, but it also applies to Welsh and Northern Irish MPs who can vote on English matters too. Rather than seek the abolition of devolved governments, which would resolve the West Lothian question at a stroke, many advocate the establishment of an English Parliament as a solution. This is no solution to the question and would risk unravelling the United Kingdom, not to mention the additional cost of a new parliament building and yet another cohort of professional politicians and their associates.
An English Parliament would be a dangerous constitutional development. England dwarfs the other home nations of Britain and is the primary contributor to the exchequer so the result will be the relegation of the Westminster Parliament to a status of secondary importance. Calls for England’s secession from the union are likely to be heard after an English Parliament is established when it becomes obvious that England is viable as an independent country but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are fiscally dependent on the English taxpayer.
Further fragmentation and the disintegration of the United Kingdom would almost certainly be the end result of establishing an English Parliament. The inequities of devolution are eroding the union and this will only cease when the devolved bodies are themselves abolished making Britain a unitary state once again. Therefore the only viable solution to the West Lothian question, with an outcome whereby the union lies intact, is to reverse devolution and restore the supremacy of the Westminster Parliament.
How did we get into this constitutional mess in the first place though? Devolution itself was a non-solution to a non-problem. The so-called ‘Celtic Fringe’ was not ignored or neglected by central government at all. These regions received more state spending than England under the Barnett Formula of 1978. This mechanism is still in place as of 2016 with England receiving £8,816 per capita compared to £9,996 in Wales, £10,536 in Scotland and £10,983 in Northern Ireland for the fiscal year 2015/16.
The Labour Party in the 1990s endorsed the European Union’s project to organise the continent into uniform Euro-regions rendering national boundaries obsolete. In retrospect Labour’s endorsement has backfired spectacularly. A regional assembly for North East England was overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate in 2004 so plans for a rollout across the rest of the country were abandoned. The Scottish Parliament is dominated by the Scottish National Party and in 2015 the parliamentary Labour Party was practically wiped out in Scotland. The Welsh Assembly is Labour controlled, but only on a knife-edge. Meanwhile, the attempt to restore the Greater London Council (GLC), abolished in 1986, with the Greater London Assembly and a Mayor of London was yet another clumsy New Labour power grab. The episode turned out to be more of a restoration than Labour bargained for when Ken Livingstone, former leader of the GLC, ran as an independent candidate for the mayorship in 2000 and won. Is London governed any better though than it was in 1999? Perhaps it is to people enthusiastic about vanity projects like the Garden Bridge, cycle superhighways, 24/7 bus lanes and other trendy obsessions. In London devolution is something of a political joke but in Scotland in particular it fanned the flames of separatism and an ugly Anglophobic sentiment.
Celtic nationalism was cynically promoted to divide the United Kingdom and further the Euro-regionalist agenda. Devolved governments are desired by Scottish and Welsh nationalists as the first step on the road towards full blown secession. These nationalists were tantalised with the promise of Brussels largesse, in place of English subsidies, to furnish their dreams of independent nationhood. It seems to have been lost on them that Scotland or Wales would never be independent if they were also members of the European Union. In fact they would have far less political influence over Brussels than they currently do over Westminster.
Nationalist fervour is less pronounced in Wales than in Scotland, probably because of the latter’s North Sea oil reserves. Interestingly the margin by which the Welsh voted for devolution in 1997 (50.30%) was smaller than those who voted to leave in 2016 (52.53%) and on a much lower turnout (50.22% versus 71.70%). Despite this fact, Plaid Cymru, led by Leanne Wood, insists that the majority vote to leave is not a large enough mandate to act upon. In any case a majority of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union and assuming the result is honoured it will dampen the desire amongst the Scots and Welsh to secede from the union. While Celtic nationalism is receding post-Brexit there is no longer any need to appease it with devolution.
Northern Ireland is a special case but devolution should be rescinded there too. Since the Northern Ireland Assembly first met in 1998 it has operated intermittently and was suspended on four occasions, the longest period of suspension lasting nearly five years. The Unionist and Republican politicians are far too polarised to form any stable governments in the province. It seems difficult to escape from the conclusion that while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom the only practical and workable method of administration is direct governance from Westminster, which occurred between 1972 and 1998/99.
The sheer cost of devolution and the wasted spending is obscene (the London Assembly costs over £8 million per year) especially when considering these bodies are serving no discernible purpose. After all, England minus Greater London appears to manage perfectly well without an extra tier of government. The existing devolved bodies seem to serve little purpose other than to boost the egos and self-importance of irredentists like Martin McGuiness or secessionists like Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond.
The devolved bodies – the Greater London Authority, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and the Scottish and Welsh Governments – are all unnecessary layers of government better abolished. Their appropriate responsibilities should be transferred to local authorities, while services covering wider areas to joint boards of local representatives or combined authorities as they are in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and so on. However, attempts to turn combined authorities into regional governments with all the paraphernalia of elected assemblies and mayors should not be countenanced. The election for the Mayor of Greater Manchester is scheduled to take place in May 2017. This is a step in the wrong direction and must be reversed. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority, for example, should continue to operate if it delivers services more effectively and efficiently than a lone local authority but only as a lean, low profile organisation subordinate to the underlying metropolitan boroughs.
An end to devolution would affirm Britain as a unitary state. Of course there will always be administrative variations amongst the home nations. Scotland and Northern Ireland have different legal systems to England and Wales, while there are also England specific and Wales specific legislation. Nevertheless, the principle of a unitary system must hold. The Westminster Parliament is supreme and only if it is the sole legislative body will the union endure.
Devolution is a defunct Blairite fad that should be consigned to the dustbin of history. UKIP must state the simple case against devolution; that it is unnecessary, wasteful of taxpayer’s money and used by its supporters to unravel the United Kingdom. Perhaps a more robust version of ‘EVEL’ (English Votes for English Laws) could be touted while the devolved bodies still exist but proposals for an English Parliament should not even be entertained.
There are those who might say that devolution is irreversible, but the same used to be said of European integration. Nothing is inevitable in politics. Mistakes can always be fixed. However, the process of repair can only begin after it is admitted that a mistake was indeed made. An admission that devolution was a dreadful mistake, an aberration, must be stated and the case made to the electorate. If not then it becomes increasingly probable that the United Kingdom will no longer stay united.