Panny Antoniou and Edward Buede-Fletcher advocate for a federal UK and English regional assemblies.
With more and more discussions on the constitutional future of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and the additional powers which they need, there has been little discussion on the future of self-government in the UK’s largest constituent nation – England.
Lacking a parliament or any other devolved representation, England is one of the most centralised nations in Europe with most powers held solely in Westminster. This has led many to advocate for a English Parliament which can make laws in a similar manner to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments. However, given the relative size of England, comprising approximately 85% of the UK’s total population, any English Parliament would virtually be a replication of Westminster and would not sufficiently devolve powers down.
One successful element of devolution in England has been the creation of new metro mayors with expanded powers which the Devolution and Local Government Network have discussed in their recent pamphlet. These highly effective measures became ever more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic with mayors including Steve Rotheram, Andy Burnham, and Sadiq Khan – the mayors of Liverpool, Manchester, and London respectively – all standing up to the Tories and their policies during the pandemic. However, these too are flawed as the metro areas will not cover everyone who lives and works in a place. For example, the people of Watford do not have any devolved powers beyond a local council but many live and work in London. The same is true of places like Bassetlaw which does not correspond to any city region due to it’s distance from Nottingham which is located in the same county and it’s lack of inclusion in the Sheffield Metro Mayor area. This means that areas like Bassetlaw and Watford can only be represented by Westminster and do not benefit from the devolved powers which London and Sheffield receive.
In addition to these problems, existing models of devolution are also under attack with the passing of the Tories’ Internal Market Bill which gives them power to intervene in devolved areas such as the environment and economic investment. The only solution which would allow for the towns and villages of England to have more control over their own affairs and what happens in their local area is not by expanding the powers of metro mayors which do not always correspond to where people live or by the creation of an English Parliament which would largely replicate the actions of Westminster. They lie in the creation of federal parliaments – Britain’s existing parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London should have their powers expanded. Focussing mostly on England as is the scope of this article, the London Assembly is a mostly deliberative body with little legislative power of it’s own. This has to change and the London Assembly members must be empowered with wide ranging powers on issues such as housing, justice, and environmental policy. Additionally, new assemblies must be created across the UK to allow everyone in England to benefit from these new increased powers, not just those living in London, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Bassetlaw may not benefit from Dan Jarvis’ leadership as Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, however, they would benefit from the creation of a Nottinghamshire or East Midlands Assembly. The same is true of Watford, which would see no benefit from increased devolution for London but would benefit from a federal parliament based around either Hertfordshire or the East of England. The same is true of hundreds of places in the UK, Preston would not benefit from an increase in the Manchester metro mayor’s powers but would benefit from a new parliament based around Lancashire or the wider North West. Stoke is not part of the West Midlands Combined Authority but would benefit from a West Midlands Assembly or a Staffordshire Parliament. These federal parliaments would also completely transform the future of the UK and create a fairer, more equitable model moving power away from Westminster, away from the big cities, and towards the towns and villages across the UK where people live.
The idea of a federal UK with power devolved down to English regions makes even more sense when you consider the strong regional identities which exist throughout England. Almost every region of the UK has their own strong identity, you see this with the traditions which each area holds dear as well as their political culture. In Yorkshire and Cornwall, the Yorkshire Party and Mebyon Kernow respectively have gained footholds through their unapologetically regional policies. From Pease Pudding to jellied eels and oatcakes to Cornish pasties, you can see the strong regional identities which people have across England through the food people eat and through the variety of regional accents which form the patchwork of our nation. By championing regionalism and building strong regional parties, not only can Labour regain the ground they previously lost in England, they can also regain new ground in seats which were previously safely Tory across England.
Finally, this regionalism and federal government will allow us to create a much fairer and more equitable UK, one which would not allow the nationalists of the SNP and Plaid Cymru to point to Westminster as a distant and ultimately English entity but as the central government of a federal state. It is only through federalism that the UK can hope to remain a single nation and it is only through federalism that local people will be empowered to create and champion the policies they want and need in their communities. We cannot wait. Keir Starmer has been vocal in his support of federalism as well as our need for a new deal on the constitution. It is only by implementing these policies that we can remain a United Kingdom and solve the deep-rooted inequalities which are faced across the different regions and nations of the UK.
Panny Antoniou and Edward Buede-Fletcher are the Policy Officer and Secretary of the Young Fabians Devolution and Local Government Network.