But key to all of this taking place is the recognition that although the centre of government has an obligation to assist us, we must never allow it to do our job for us. The man in the ministry in Whitehall means well, but the truth is that all too often he’s just not very good at what he does.
Tuesday saw Parliament discuss the topic of English devolution – a long overdue issue that needs careful attention and proper resolution. As the Member of Parliament representing England’s most remotely accessible constituency from Westminster (you can get to London more quickly from Edinburgh or Glasgow than you can from Whitehaven) I have a lot to say on the subject. That said, true to Parliamentary form, I listened to the debate for over four hours, before being called to speak for a maximum of three minutes (and people say our system doesn’t work…)
The job of any government, particularly in the wake of the Scottish referendum, must be to facilitate the ambitions of the English regions. A new constitutional settlement for Scotland compels a new constitutional settlement for the other nations of the United Kingdom. Difficult? Yes, but also inescapable.
Regional devolution is a necessity, but is only the beginning England requires. Beyond our great cities, the nation building England needs will be much more difficult. It is in the peripheral areas outside of our major conurbations all over England – like in Copeland and Cumbria – where we must begin to concentrate our efforts and this is why an English parliament is such an irrelevant notion.
England is beset by a toxic disconnection between the governed and the governors.
Nowhere is this disconnection more keenly felt than in that forgotten England largely ignored by the political mainstream and the national media; those places people have heard of, but have never been to. In our Rugby League towns, in our lower-league football cities, a crisis is taking grip.
In many places – accelerated by austerity – the community fabric is being destroyed and the very pillars of local society and community are disappearing.
Communities like this are now used to dealing with the consequences of factory closures – but a new challenge is on the horizon. What happens to these communities when government pulls out? It’s a vital question and one that both the left and the right seems reluctant to have. At the centre of attempts to drive regional economic growth is the essential question: what is the role of the state? What size should it be? Should it command more or less resource? Should these resources be spread more thinly performing more functions, or should they be concentrated by performing less?
The key to transforming communities like ours is to devolve power. This will result in faster, more effective delivery of better health care, better educational outcomes, better communities and stronger local economies. The devolution of power to England’s peripheral economies is the essential foundation stone of any meaningful effort to fundamentally address the causes of poverty in these areas.
Central to achieving any of this is an understanding of how England currently is and not how we would want it to be. Some hard questions must be asked and these require detailed answers.
English devolution must never fall victim to the same pitfalls of Scottish nationalism; in particular the self-delusional refusal to ask and answer the tough questions.
So it’s time in England to begin some nation building – this means empowerment. Only local empowerment can enable the ambitions and aspirations of communities like ours to be achieved.