Thursday 15 October 2020

Alternative political cartography: a more rational union

Most of this piece was written in 2017 (probably after another soul-destroying election result) but left in draft and I just came across it again. Depressingly, it still resonates; only more so. Some musings from a politically angry but ever hopeful soul.

Is it just me or is it not blindingly obvious that a more rational, modern and fit-for-purpose political geography might mean the 'united kingdom' of these islands has a chance to survive and prosper? You wouldn't know it from the woeful lack of progressive political discourse in Parliament and the media, either hell-bent on a 
reckless charge towards a damaging Hard Brexit and the then seemingly inevitable break-up of Britain (oh the irony!) or unable to voice an alternative narrative. A sleep-walk into changes which do little to address the grievances, disillusionment and inequality that abound within society.

What if we had a more grown-up polity, reflecting the geo-political realities of the country along a more federalised model (you know, like those moderately successful countries Canada, Germany and Australia)? Maybe something like the arrangement mapped above? 

Without a seemingly permanent Tory hegemony, which really doesn't reflect our complex society, maybe we could even have a fighting chance of responding better to the pandemics, environmental changes and other challenges of the future? Some notes to flesh out this Utopian dreaming are presented at the end of this piece.

Well its an interesting exercise for those who want to imagine what a better country might look like; a future not dragged down by a backward-looking Little Englander memory of what never was, policy-making in the hands of Populist leaders in thrall to disaster capitalists, neo-fascists and libertarian Svengali figures, only interested in short-term headline grabbing. People will disagree, maybe because they feel the time has come for Scotland to break free, Ireland to unite or Wales to rise up - and who came blame them really; others who cannot see beyond the Mother of all Parliaments, 'first past the post gives us strong government', England is Britain mythology. But - to me - such a devolved federal structure, or something like it, is the only positive way forward for these islands.

Sadly, such ideas seem like so much pissing in the wind in the current stifling political climate, dominated by reactive and inadequate responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, the pettiness and division of Brexit, pressures for Scottish independence and so forth; all the time the climate emergency gathering pace. Let's hope the next generation are able to participate in more positive debates to discuss options for and the practicalities of democratic rebirth rather than the divisive and dispiriting cant that we are currently having to put up with. We want our country back? Too bloody right. 

And a name for this brave new vision: Federal Republic of Britain? Albion Unchained? Well I suppose we would have to have a referendum on that ...  

This model essentially builds on the devolved system already in place across Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales but, crucially, extends this to England. The idea is not to somehow extinguish England but to recognise that there is and always has been a strong regional element to its identity (which is a good thing!), it is by far the largest of the 'nations' within these islands and needs governance closer to the people but that does not dominate the other constituents of the union, and also a model that heads off the potential for 'anti-Celtic' English nationalism.

The English regions actually suggest themselves fairly easily: most have a deep historical resonance and unity, often stretching back to England's beginnings in the 'Anglo-Saxon' centuries, and provide fairly equal populations and diversity of cities/ towns/ country etc. The most obvious break from this is London. Large enough, confident enough, great enough to be a true city region - subsuming it in a 'South-east' region would do neither it or the surrounding shires any favours. This arrangement allows the Great Wen to punch its weight as a world city whilst remaining rooted in its British hinterland, its central government-Westminster village shackles and vices removed. And why Derby to take over the mantel for the National Parliament? Well it has to be out of London, the big cities wouldn't need it (they will be the heart of their own regions) and its somewhere central that needs a bit of a pick-me-up. 

There would be some debates to be had around the margins when drawing the boundaries of and naming these regions. I've put Northamptonshire in the East Midlands but it could be the included in Mercia or even the Home Counties. Hampshire is Home Counties but could be Wessex if history was the only consideration. Cumbria is usually lumped in with the north-west but seems to more naturally ally with the north-east. The North-west is a pretty uninspiring moniker but what's the alternative: Cheshire and Lancashire; Greater Mersey-Manchester? And so on.  

The 'Isles' get equal billing with Scotland as a nod to the feeling that they don't quite feel represented in such a geographically large domain (Scotland and the Isles looks huge in comparison to the English regions but its population is on a par with Yorkshire). Should/ would Northern Ireland sit well in this new arrangement or is it time for the island of Ireland to go its own way? This is still a raw and contentious issue. Some might even call for Ireland to be welcomed into a true British Isles model, but there is way too much baggage for that to seem anything but naive (and would, no doubt, seem deeply unappealing to the vast majority of Irish people). 

Some details:
  • The nine English regional assemblies, Scottish Parliament and the Northern Irish and Welsh National Assemblies would have devolved responsibility for day-to-day public services and regional policy, with local tax-raising powers to fund them (including an adjusted redistributive element to ensure richer areas support those with lower tax income), i.e. 'Devomax'.
  • Federal elections for all of the devolved bodies through proportional representation (with public funding for parties, groups and individuals who meet set criteria for participation). I make no secret of my dislike of the Conservative Party (not to mention UKIP/ Brexit Party) but in a grown-up system they deserve to have a voice - or even dominance - in areas where they have support: it would be up to the other representatives to work with them or win the argument.
  • A small National Parliament and part elected Second Chamber for policy and legislative scrutiny to replace the Westminster Parliament and House of Lords (with no hereditary members). Representatives of the elected members of the devolved bodies would make up the Parliament, with a leader or managing team elected by this group via cross-party secret ballot (the broken model of 'winner takes all' first-past-the-post adversarial politics and all-powerful Prime Minister would be consigned to history). The role of the Parliament would be restricted to foreign policy, planning for a sustainable future, strategic national infrastructure concerns, allocating budgets to the devolved bodies (based on a redistributive formulae) and promoting best practice across regions. 
  • The National Parliament would not be a full-time body but would meet regularly rotating its location, perhaps annually, between Cardiff, Edinburgh and Derby. Its reduced central civil service would be based in one location, probably Derby due to its geographic centrality. 
  • Scotland and Wales (and for that matter any English region) could secede from the union where a super majority (60:40) of the voting population of that entity backed independence. The process for getting to this stage would need to be carefully constructed (as we are being Utopian here, political parties would not be able to campaign during the voting process and a road map spelling out how independence would be achieved and what it would look like would be produced by an independent commission, with no reference to 'cake', 'sun-kissed uplands', 'unicorns' or Braveheart). Arrangements for Northern Ireland to secede would be as per the Good Friday Agreement.
  • Members of the European Parliament (yes, in this brave new world we have rejoined the EU!) would be elected through proportional representation (as now) but represent the same geographical region as the devolved bodies and work in partnership with their peers in the devolved body. 
  • Oh, and the monarch would be replaced as head of state with a directly elected president (though what, if any, leadership role this figure-head would have in the National Parliament would need to be thought through). The royal retinue would be pensioned off and live out a peacefully extinction. Royal properties would be handed over to the National Trust. This is probably the least important element of the whole package. 
  • A written constitution to enshrine the principles of these democratic processes in law.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I have been talking and writing about this for many years. The only change I would suggest to your scenario would be for London to be an international city and therefore outside the confederation. The remaining 11 regions or nations would then be more equal. Things are changing. This may not be such a hopeless dream in a year or so. The"seperatist" policies of the Welsh government here are widely supported. There's not much politics in my blog but plenty of landscape:


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