Blair Counts the Counties Out: The Creation of New Regional Assemblies -- Toothless, Partially Unelected Bodies That Will Usurp Existing Councils -- Is an Act of Gross Cynicism
Cox, David, New Statesman (1996)
None of our failings disappoints our Prime Minister as much as our cynicism. It is this vice, he feels, that enables mere spin and sleaze to distract us from his wondrous achievements. What, though, if cynicism were found to pervade the Blair regime itself -- not just presentation and patronage, but the essence of policy-making? We are about to find out.
The government's proposal to create regional assemblies for England was cynical enough to start off with. Constitutional propriety was always going to be sacrificed to party advantage. However, the white paper detailing the scheme to be published shortly, will plumb depths of cynicism as yet undreamt of.
The assemblies plan was never bout improving England's governance. It was cooked up to address the constitutional chaos created by Scottish devolution, itself primarily an attempt to counter the nationalist threat to Labour's vote. This has left England governed partly by MPs elected in what has become, for domestic purposes, another country. The problem could have been solved by federalising the UK with England, Wales and Northern Ireland being given parliaments of the same status as Scotland's. However, Labour leaders feared that an English parliament might end up with an inbuilt Tory majority -- an unthinkable prospect. England would therefore have to remain under UK rule, so that a reserve army of Labour MPs from the reliable Celtic fringe could out-vote native Tories on English matters whenever necessary. In case the English asked why they were being deliberately denied democracy, they would be thrown a sop -- directly elected regional assemblies.
From the outset, the scheme looked dodgy. Some countries divide fairly easily into regions, but not England. No mighty river or range of snow-capped peaks divides the north from the south, still less the Midlands from anywhere else. On the map, the south-west looks reasonably discrete, but even there, Cornishpersons want as little to do with Devonians as possible.
Still, since 1994, England has been arbitrarily chopped up into nine zones for the delivery of central government services. One of the boundaries happens to go straight through Sheffield's travel-to-work area. But what the hell: Labour's constitutional architects have decided that these zones will suit their purpose as well as any. So, the white paper will reveal. Swindon is to be exported to the southwest, Banbury's Midlanders will become south-easterners and homely Hemel Hempsteaders are to be reborn as denizens of the mysterious east.
Some of the new regions will be so meaningless that even Labour's commissars have balked at imposing them everywhere. An assembly will be set up only where a majority approves it in a regional referendum. If, as a result, some regions end up with assemblies while others do not a new asymmetry will be created, compounding the original constitutional imbalance that the scheme is supposed to be rectifying. People in English regions that do not have assemblies will have their affairs partly determined by MPs from regions that do, as well as by Celtic MPs.
Not that the new assemblies will be assuming Westminster's role within their regions. Because the underlying objective of the whole scheme is to keep real power in London, few Whitehall functions are to be transferred. The shiny new assemblies cannot, however, be left completely toothless, lest the English notice. So the white paper will propose that powers for the new assemblies should be taken from local authorities. Where will that leave the then denuded councils? The unitary authorities that run most of England's conurbations will just have to get used to rival bodies treading on their toes. …