Hannah Mitchell Foundation is hosting an informal discussion on how the new Corbyn-led Labour Party could embrace a democratic devolution agenda. Following the launch of his ‘Northern Futures’ discussion there’s plenty of room for optimism! Please join us on Tuesday September 29th, between 6.00pm and 8.00pm, at The Albert pub, Huddersfield town centre (just opposite the central library). All welcome – and you can sign up as a member on the night!
Devolution now? The case for a new progressive Northern politics
For Involve Yorkshire and Humber, York, November 18th 2014
So why ‘devolution’? Let’s get it clear at the start: it’s only a means to an end. It must be about greater social justice, a more balanced nation, sustainable economic growth and greater popular participation in how our communities work. It was interesting to see how the debate in Scotland in the last few weeks of the referendum focused on issues like child-care, removal of Trident, jobs and the NHS rather than ‘independence’ per se. We’ve much to learn from the Scottish experience and the continuing high levels of political engagement, reflected in the phenomenal rise in membership of the SNP and other pro-independence parties as well as support for non-aligned groups like the Radical Independence Campaign.
It’s starting to happen south of the border. The debate on democratic devolution within England is moving forward rapidly, after years of disinterest. There is a refreshing open-ness to develop a new politics which offers a progressive alternative to UKIP and the other established parties. It’s very clear that following both Clacton – but Heywood and Middleton in particular – the political situation is changing and there’s a vacant space for a radical politics in the North of England which is inclusive and popular and mirrors the radical politics that have emerged in Scotland. The voluntary sector has a potentially huge role to play in this ‘small p’ politics. Scottish devolution in the mid to late 1980s was propelled by the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which involved broad swathes of civil society. My central argument is that the full potential of Northern devolution will only be won if the debate extends way beyond the ‘political class’ and reaches out to the grassroots. We need an inclusive ‘Northern Citizens’ Convention’ which has strong local roots – a ‘citizens’ convention’ in every neighbourhood! It can be done. People are not apathetic or sick of ‘politics’ per se – just a particular kind of politics reflected by the way we are being governed by Westminster. Tens of thousands of people in Scotland have become involved in politics, both for and against independence, over the last few months. Can we start to get some of that energy generated in the North of England?
The ‘English problem’
It’s widely recognised that England is a highly centralised nation with power and resources increasingly concentrated on London and the south-east. The historic ‘north-south’ divide is getting bigger and virtually every index of deprivation shows the North (Yorkshire and the Humber; North-West and North-east) becoming poorer in comparison to the South-east. The Scottish referendum campaign has forced the political establishment to accept further devolution for Scotland and the ‘English Question’ – how to re-balance England itself so London and the South-east becomes less dominant – has shot up the agenda.
The response from the political establishment has been to avoid creating any new directly-elected bodies but instead to devolve some powers and resources to ‘combined authorities’ in Northern city regions and impose elected mayors on city regions. Some of these ‘combined authorities’ already exist, for example in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. They bring together the local authorities in their respective areas, with the council leaders forming a leadership group. They have growing budgets covering a range of sectors, including transport and economic development. While it could be argued these are a pragmatic response to existing needs, their big problem is their lack of accountability. Indirectly-elected bodies such as these give greater powers to officers and effectively remove any semblance of popular participation. Further, almost by definition, ‘city regions’ have an excessive focus on the main city conurbations and less emphasis on the more peripheral urban centres and rural areas. The imposition of directly-elected mayors who will work alongside indirectly-elected combined authorities seems to me a recipe for confusion and conflict.
The alternative is ‘democratic devolution’ to the regions, with elected assemblies having similar powers to Wales and Scotland. It works in those places, why not in the North? It would solve the so-called ‘West Lothian’ questuion immediately. Devolution all round! Directly-elected regional assemblies are clear, easily understandable political units. They should be elected by PR to allow a better balance between town, city and rural hinterland. It has been suggested that this merely creates ‘another tier of bureaucracy’ but surely regionalisation should be an opportunity to radically reduce the size of the central civil service, with fewer MPs at Westminster. Further, it should involve a fundamental re-organisation of the dogs’ dinner that is English local government, with smaller and more accountable local authorities which reflect people’s local identities. We should look at new forms of local democracy based on co-operative structures that are accountable, enterprising and creative.
Critics have said that there is no ‘public appetite’ for regional assemblies and cite the 2004 referendum in the North-East as proof. Yet ten years is a very long time and we’ve since seen the success of devolution in the UK. And the original ‘offer’ in 2004 was not only a top-down fix but offered little concrete advantages.
A ‘bottom-up’ approach to regional democracy offers an opportunity to create new forms of governance. There should, from day one of a regional assembly, be a requirement to have gender equality and a proportion of seats for young people under the age of 30. Regional assemblies should be about encouraging democracy and participation at more local levels, working with councils and neighbourhood organisations: it’s about opening up how we do politics.
Devolve to where? Yorkshire, North-West and the North
Popular regionalism needs to reflect strong historic identities and be of a manageable size. In the North of England, it means accepting that there are three ‘regions’ – Yorkshire, the North-east and North-West (at least). They have many things in common and need stronger physical links – through improved transport infrastructure and telecommunications – but also economic and other forms of co-operation. The political implications of this are assemblies for Yorkshire, the North-East and North-West who co-operate with each other on a number of issues. The areas where regional assemblies could focus on include:
- Infrastructure and transport
- Economic development
- Creative industries/culture
- Higher education
There are some areas where pan-Northern co-operation is crucial, notably in transport and economic development. In the case of rail, for example, there is already a ‘Rail North’ executive which is overseen by 30 local authorities. Instead of 30, why not just have three? Whilst the focus of devolution should be to the assemblies, joint co-operation can be progressed through a virtual ‘Council of the North’ which shares resources and services as appropriate. It isn’t about having a huge bureaucracy somewhere in the Pennines – it’s about practical collaboration and highly flexible and innovative ways of working which don’t involve endless unproductive meetings.
A new Northern politics?
A new and distinctly ‘Northern’ regionalism is starting to emerge. There is already a North-east Party, Yorkshire First and ‘The Free North Campaign’. Recently, a revived ‘Campaign for the North’ was launched to promote pan-Northern approaches. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation was set up three years ago as a cross-party/non-aligned lobby and think tank group for Northern devolution. Within the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats there is growing interest in regionalism though this isn’t yet reflected in leadership support. Only the Greens have a clear pro-regionalist stance.
There is a very strong likelihood that the general election next May will see regionalist candidates standing in many constituencies across the North, fighting on a progressive, democratic programme and offering a popular alternative to UKIP to disillusioned voters. Yorkshire First was formed as recently as March this year but managed to pick up 20,000 votes in the European elections a few weeks later, with hardly any campaigning and no resources. Its ‘Yorkshire Pledge’ for an elected assembly is gaining over a hundred on-line ‘pledges’ each week. Can that be translated into votes at what will be a crucial general election? And where, if it does, will they come from? Both Yorkshire First and The North-East Party are wary of ‘left’ and ‘right’ labels, stressing their democratic and socially progressive values but appealing to what, in traditional terms, is a broadly centre left to centre right spectrum. Neither is narrowly ‘anti-South’, representing an inclusive ‘civic regionalism’ which welcomes all who have made Yorkshire or the North East their home. Both are broadly pro-European.
A key objective of groups like Yorkshire First is to prove that there is popular support for regional democracy. This will – the argument runs – nudge parties such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats to embrace the idea of directly-elected assemblies. There are precedents for the idea: Labour’s commitment to devolution in Scotland and Wales was as much driven by concerns about the SNP and Plaid Cymru stealing their votes so much as a genuine desire to devolve power. Today, if anything, the stakes are even higher with Labour facing the real possibility that it will be squeezed between right-wing populist nationalism and a new progressive Northern regionalism.
But the debate must go way beyond the political parties – established and new. There is no simple answer to ‘the Northern Question’. It’s easy to come up with blueprints from on high which lack popular engagement and support. That’s why the Hannah Mitchell Foundation and Unlock Democracy are calling for an inclusive ‘Northern Citizens’ Convention’ that can be the beginning – and not the end – of a debate on how best to extend democracy to the North. Within organisations like Involve Yorkshire and the Humber there’s huge expertise in how we could develop a more inclusive approach to changing the world we live in. We need your help, advice and involvement to make the Citizens’ Convention take off across the North. I’d like to see ‘mini’ citizens’ conventions in every town and village across the North.
Finally – politics is too important to be left to the politicians. The world – and our bit of it here in Yorkshire – is changing rapidly. We can influence that change or sit back and let change be forced upon us. I’ve little doubt as to where your preferences lie!
Paul Salveson is general secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation. He can be contacted at: email@example.com www.paulsalveson.org.uk
October 27th 09.00
To the news editor
PRESS RELEASE: (immediate)
The Hannah Mitchell Foundation has welcomed the report by Sir David Higgins on improved rail links across the North of England, with some major caveats.
Prof. Paul Salveson, secretary of the Foundation and a well-respected transport academic, said: “The proposed ‘HS3’ east-west high-speed line will be good for the North of England providing it is carried out in a way that gives maximum benefit to all of the North and not just the major cities. This has to be more than a pre-election gimmick and the project needs to involve all the relevant local authorities, not just the major cities. The lack of regional government for the North highlights the need for strategic governance of this project. The proposed ‘Transport for the North’ body is exactly the sort of agency we are saying should be democratically accountable.”
The Foundation stresses:
- The route of the new high-speed line needs to take into account of the local communities and the environment, and minimise disruption. Using the former Woodhead line across the Pennines deserves serious consideration
- There must be proper connectivity between the proposed HS2 high-speed line and the HS3 route, with direct links at Manchester and Leeds between the two networks
- The high-speed line must be developed as part of an expanding Northern network which means a major improvement on the poor quality rolling stock passengers currently have to put up with. The North needs an integrated, joined-up transport network; HS3 should not be an excuse for the Government to ignore the urgent need for the upgrade of existing services and other route re-openings e.g. Skipton-Colne
- The construction phase should benefit Northern companies and it should be used to as a boost to high-tech manufacturing in the region by a firm commitment to ensure local companies are encouraged to compete for tenders for everything from infrastructure to rolling stock
- A high-speed rail link should not be a distraction from the need to focus on an
- Ultimately, however, the North’s transport needs are best considered by the people of the North. We should have the tax-raising powers to be able invest in our own transport and the ability to use our own assets to raise finance to fund the projects we need.
More: Paul Salveson 07795 008691
New paper by Jeff Henderson and Ying Ho published in Renewal:
The upas tree: the overdevelopment
of London and the
under-development of Britain
Jeffrey Henderson and Suet Ying Ho
If there is to be any economic rejuvenation of
Britain’s nations and regions, then Britain must
become a federal state.
Read it here: Upas Tree – Renewal published version
September 8th 2015 15.15hrs
To the news editor
PRESS RELEASE: (immediate)
Scotland, the Referendum and the North: open meeting in Leeds
An open meeting is being held in Leeds on Thursday September 11th to discuss the impact of the Scottish referendum on the North of England. It starts at 7.30pm in The Civic Hall, Calverley Street, Leeds LS1 1UR. Speakers are Prof. Paul Salveson Director, Hannah Mitchell Foundation www.hannahmitchell.org.uk Professor Jeffrey Henderson, and Dr Ying Ho of Leeds and University of Bristol
On 18th September, Scotland votes on whether to become independent. Scotland this summer is alive with civic debate on this momentous decision. Here in the North of England, the Hannah Mitchell Foundation has been formed to campaign for devolution in the North. The big question is: What are the implications of a ‘yes’ vote for the North of England? The event in LEEDS will explore the issues and is open to everyone. There is no charge for admission.
Paul Salveson of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation said “We are delighted to be leading in this important debate. More and more people in the North of England recognise that we are being marginalised in British politics and we need some of the powers which Scotland, Wales and even London already have. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the North needs to get its act together and unite behind a vision of a new, dynamic and inclusive North which has friendly and mutually beneficial relationships with Scotland and the rest of the UK. We don’t want a few crumbs but strong, directly-elected regional government working with empowered local government which gives the North the leadership and direction it desperately needs”.
Barry Winter, chair of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation (and chair for Thursday’s meeting) said: “Independence means the potential to move beyond the politics of austerity, neo-liberalism and empire. The prospect of having a radical neighbour trying new ways of doing politics is a very inspiring possibility for many of us in England.”
For more information on above event ring Paul Salveson 07795 008691
21.15 September 1st 2014: embargoed to 07.30 Tuesday September 2nd
PRESS RELEASE: (immediate)
Time for an ‘England of the Regions’
As the Scottish referendum approaches, the North of England lobby for devolution is calling for an ‘England of the regions’. Professor Paul Salveson, general secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, publishes a paper today titled One Nation – Many Rivers which explores England’s radical traditions which could form the building blocks of a new, democratic English politics.
Barry Winter, chair of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, says: “Paul Salveson calls for a genuine devolution of power to England’s regions in line with the changes taking place in both Scotland and Wales. His argument could not be more relevant in these fluid times. He recognises we have an opportunity to break with our over-centralised system and with the political cynicism it encourages. An England of the regions, he argues, drawing on our democratic traditions, should ensure that power is then widely dispersed. This is a message of hope in the possibility of positive change for a better future.”
The paper was strongly influenced by Jon Cruddas’s George Lansbury Memorial Lecture presented by the London Labour MP to an audience at the London School of Economics last year. Lansbury was a leading figure on the left of the Labour Party in the inter-war years, and Cruddas draws inspiration from Lansbury’s democratic socialist beliefs.
Paul Salveson said “many of Cruddas’s ideas, whilst based on an important political activist of the past, are highly relevant for us today. In particular, his arguments for an open and inclusive left which is willing to ‘give power away’ is incredibly important in the context of growing interest in devolution with England”.
The paper argues that the way forward for a modern left-of-centre English politics is to embrace real political devolution and build new alliances between different parts of the centre-left. Salveson says:
“I’ve written this as an English Labour political activist, stressing a specifically English radical tradition that we need to re-energise, based on progressive regionalism. Strong radical movements in Scotland and Wales can only help propel that forward. The campaign for ‘radical independence’ in Scotland has been at the forefront of creating a new radical politics. A new English politics is about moving away from the spurious ‘unity’ of Great Britain which only served to hide the reality of English – or more accurately London – domination. The future must be a federation of free nations and – within England itself – regions.”
The paper is available HERE: http://www.hannahmitchell.org.uk/2014/08/31/one-nation-many-rivers/
More information: Paul Salveson on 07795 008691
What sort of North? (August 31 2014)
a few thoughts from Paul Salveson
The Scottish referendum is starting to have an impact south of the border. About time too! The media has woken up to the possibility that a ‘yes’ – or even a close ‘no’ – will stimulate debate in the North, and perhaps other English regions, about regional devolution. Today’s Observer (August 31st) carries a double page spread by Robert Yates, headed ‘Will the north follow Scotland and search for greater power?’ It’s here: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/aug/31/one-north-regeneration-railways-jobs-cities .The logic of the article leads inexorably towards a ‘yes’ response and the need for a Northern government. Yet the author raises the idea of ‘new regional structures, a council of the North for instance?’ only to say ‘there’s not much appetite for such a notion. …there’s not much appetite, in truth, for any huge shifts in governance structure (apart, that is, from the combined authorities embracing smaller towns that feed into a city, following the example of Greater Manchester). Oh really? Is there any appetite for ‘combined authorities’ beyond local authority leaders? I don’t think so. The Observer article didn’t go beyond the rather narrow horizons of a small number of local government leaders, whose agenda is to look after their own. Most people outside those narrow confines have any idea about ‘combined authorities’ which are being established with precious little public consultation and even less democratic accountability. West Yorkshire now has a ‘combined authority’ with considerable powers and a large budget. Unlike the former West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, it isn’t directly elected and for an ordinary member of the public trying to influence its decisions, forget it. This is all wrong but there seems to be a conspiracy of silence over it. Over the next few years more and power will be ceded to combined authorities across the North and expect a further decline in voter turn-out.
The Observer article was accompanied by a commentary from Ed Cox, director of IPPR North. This think-tank has produced some excellent material on the need for greater powers for the North, but still steps short of advocating real democratic accountability. The talk, reflecting the views of some Northern city leaders, is about ‘city regions’ made up of combined local authorities, getting further power devolved from the centre. He says “By 2020 we need to see a proper constitutional settlement for England giving local government the kind of autonomy afforded in almost every other mature European democracy.” Yes, agreed, but what about regional government? You can’t construct an effective regional ‘powerhouse’ to rival London and the south-east through an amalgam of local authorities who will inevitably pursue their own ‘local’ agenda. And pretty much every other ‘mature democracy’ manages to combine vibrant local government with devolved, directly-elected, regional government – Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the USA to name just a few. IPPR North’s reluctance to utter the ‘R’ word is reflected in the Labour front bench shyness of advocating regional government. “We don’t want to create any more politicians” was the response from Ed Miliband when the question I put to him some time back at a Labour gathering. What a very odd answer. Hilary Benn said much the same thing when I raised the issue with him. He didn’t have any intellectual arguments against ‘regional government’ as such, but was worried about the effect of Labour advocating ‘another tier of bureaucracy’. This timidity is not shared by every Labour MP, but the devolutionists tend to be back benchers like our excellent Linda Riordan.
Why so timid? Any reasonable person looking at the political map of the UK would see devolved government – directly elected through PR – working well in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – and even London. So the conclusion for England should be glaringly obvious – directly elected regions which take substantial power out of Whitehall. The counter argument to ’additional cost and bureaucracy’ is that you have a much smaller civil service, hence less cost, with ultimately most functions devolved apart from defence and foreign policy. A small number of functions, such as police, could be merged into a regional structure, with obvious economies of scale and real accountability, instead of the laughably inadequate ‘police and crime commissioners’.
Finally, the clinching argument for an all-Northern government to me is the railways. The franchises for Northern and TransPennine Express are currently being re-let by civil servants in London, assisted by officers from ‘Rail North’. This is a joint body of no less than 30 Northern local authorities. You can imagine how accountable this ‘combined authority’ is. And, let’s be honest (if not popular) Rail North’s current role seems to be that of a fig leaf for decisions being made by well-meaning, but remote, civil servants in London. A powerful and well-resourced Northern regional government is the obvious body to oversee ‘Rail North’ which should have complete responsibility for local and regional rail in its area.
English Parliament – and city regions – no thanks! England of the regions: Yes Please!
Today’s ‘Guardian’ pushes the ‘English parliament’ argument – more London-centric rubbish (wherever it might be based!)
Here’s a quick response:
An ‘English parliament’ would be disastrous for the North (‘Answering the English Question’, Guardian, August 22), leaving us even more marginalised by London and the South-east. I’m puzzled by the apparent breadth of support for an all-England parliament suggested by the Edinburgh and Cardiff University study you refer to. Up here there is growing interest in having devolved government for the North – and I detect little ‘Anti-Scots’ sentiment. Quite the opposite, with some suggesting that if Scotland votes ‘yes’ they might like to consider moving the border a hundred miles further south! (sent to Guardian August 22nd)
A few more thoughts:
The idea of an English Parliament generally attracts support from right-wing cranks – no wonder UKIP has picked it up. It’s narrow nationalism which could easily turn very nasty – anti-Scots, anti-Irish and antiwhoever doesn’t fit in with the ‘quintessentially English’ stereotypes so beloved by our media.
We want an inclusive, democratic ‘England of the regions’ – The North, Midlands, South-west, East and South-East (maybe with London as it is – it already has regional government!). An ‘English Parliament’ – wherever you base it – would be heavily dominated by London and the South-East and tap into all the worst aspects of English chauvinism. Anyone on the left who thinks it could somewhow release some radical impulses is living in a dream-land. The risk is we’d get a right-wing English government, hostile to the EU, anti-immigrant, anti-welfare.
An England of the regions would open the way for a re-balanced nation at ease with itself and its neighbours, inclusive and tolerant – exemplifying some of the best traditions of ‘this England’ and not its worst. And it isn’t just the ‘regional’ dimension – it’s also about empowering lcoal government and getting power down to the lowest appropriate level. The EU calls it ‘subsidiarity’ but it’s really grassroots democracy.
We need to push regional democracy up the political agenda and not get led astray either by the right-wing chimera of an English Parliament or the Blairite notion of unelected ‘city regions’. The North needs directly-elected governance which brings together Yorkshire, the North-East and the North-West in a radical and creative alliance. A North that works with a potentially independent Scotland and devolved Wales. We are not anti-south but it’s time we got off our knees and demanded our own voice and powers!
18.00h August 15th 2014
To the news editor
PRESS RELEASE: (immediate)
The North needs a rail revolution, not mean-minded ‘trade-offs’
The Hannah Mitchell Foundation – a campaign and think tank supporting Northern regional government, has sent a strongly-worded response to the Government’s consultation on the future Northern and TransPennine Express franchises which start in February 2016. It has called on Ed Miliband and his transport shadow secretary Mary Creagh to commit an incoming Labour Government to major changes to the franchise if the Government persists with a cuts agenda. It wants a new fleet of trains to replace the unloved and life-expired ‘Pacers’ – and for the trains to be built in the North.
“The Government consultation talks a lot about ‘trade-offs’ between investment and cuts to on-train staff and booking offices. We completely reject that and want to see the growth we’ve seen on rail over the last 10 years encouraged more, not choked off” said Foundation chair Barry Winter. “Stations should be centres of activity, with even small stations acting as community hubs with small shops and space for community groups.”
The Foundation stresses the importance of new rolling stock for the increasingly over-crowded rail services across the North. “Many of the trains that are running around the North are well past their sell-by date,” said Foundation secretary Professor Paul Salveson. “We need a new generation of diesel as well as electric trains to replace the old ‘Pacer’ and ‘Sprinter’ trains. And crucially, these new trains should be built in the North of England, the home of railways, not in Germany or France.”
“It must be a ‘growth’ franchise, not the ‘steady state’ approach which has served the North so badly since 2005,” said Barry. “We want to see an expanding network with re-openings across the North, including Skipton – Colne, a new line to Skelmersdale, the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne network and York to Hull via Market Weighton. Routes such as Calder Valley desperately need electrification and a Bradford cross-rail would help transform the West Yorkshire rail network, as part of a wider strategy lining regional rail with the proposed ‘HS3’ route across the Pennines.”
The Foundation rejects the current franchising system which will see ‘the usual suspects’ of major private companies and foreign-state owned railways bidding. “We have seen enough profit exported from our under-funded railways to private shareholders or foreign state-owned railways,” argued Paul Salveson. “Our railways in the North should be accountable to people in the North, run by a not-for-profit company which involves employees and passengers and re-invests any surplus back into the railway”.
The Foundation supports union efforts to keep staff on trains. “Having a conductor on trains isn’t just about collecting revenue and opening and shutting doors, it’s about having a visible presence to help and assist passengers and provide a sense of security – as well as vital support in the case of emergencies. We want to see trains that are properly staffed with a stronger focus on passengers and their needs”, said Professor Salveson, himself a former railway guard who became a senior manager with Northern Rail.
HMF suggests that the consortium of 30 local authorities called Rail North, – “very much a ‘junior partner’ in the partnership with the Government which is letting the new franchises”, should be strengthened and given full responsibility – and the funding to go with it – to manage and develop the rail network. Ultimately, Rail North should be accountable to a directly-elected assembly for the North as a whole, ensuring real accountability and a fully joined-up approach to transport and wider development.”
The Foundation wants to see transport integration taken much more seriously, with improved bus links and safe cycling and walking routes to stations. Trains should have more space for bikes and luggage, with the option of safe cycle storage at stations.
The franchises do not start until February 2016. “There is every possibility of Labour sweeping to power in May 2015, said Barry. “It would be absurd for an incoming Labour Government to preside over a new Northern franchise which fails to meet the needs of passengers, staff and the wider community,” he stressed. Ed Miliband and his transport shadow secretary Mary Creagh would win huge support if they committed a Labour Government to major changes to the Northern franchise proposition, putting the needs of people and not profit first.”
More information: Paul Salveson 07795 008691
Building new bonds of citizenship: Scotland and the North
Based on speech to Red Pepper/Hannah Mitchell Foundation/Reid Foundation event in Preston, August 12th 2014
The Hannah Mitchell Foundation is about generating interest in democratic and inclusive regional government for the North. We have a very strong interest in what is happening in Scotland and we’re immensely excited by the flowering of ideas and debate. As a body we are neutral between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaign: it is for the people of Scotland to decide on their future, and whichever way the vote goes, we want to strengthen our links with radical campaigners north of the border. Hannah Mitchell herself – an outstanding democratic socialist, feminist and co-operator – would have been excited by events taking place in Scotland. She said “We must work as though we live in the early days of a better nation.” And that is what Scotland is going through at the moment. The ferment of ideas goes way beyond the SNP, embracing a wide cross-section of society and involving the Greens, Scottish Socialist Party, many Labour Party members and a huge number of people who have not been involved in ‘politics’ before. The following comments are my own personal views: within HMF we encourage different ideas and approaches: I am for Scottish independence, for reasons I’ll explain. Other colleagues want Scotland to stay within the UK.
Here in the North of England there is a growing sense of grievance about the widening gap with London and the South-East. It is economic and social: as yet it hasn’t really developed a political expression but it’s going that way. The newly-formed ‘Yorkshire First’ party won nearly 20,000 votes in the European elections, after only being in existence a matter of weeks, with a tiny budget. Similar moves are afoot in the North-east and there are signs of interest in a pan-Northern political movement. As a member of the Labour Party I want to see my own party embrace the idea of directly-elected regional government on a similar basis to the governance enjoyed by Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. Hanging some money over to unaccountable ‘combined authorities in the city regions is not an adequate response. We need a real vision for the English regions within an over-arching Federal Britain.
As things stand, people in the North are watching events in the North of England with mixed feelings. I don’t detect any ‘anti-Scots’ sentiment despite the intense London media hostility to Salmond and the nationalists. Quite a few people I speak to in the North say ‘good luck to ‘em’ and a few even express the idea of moving the border a hundred miles further south! Within the Labour Party there are quite a few of us at the grassroots who support independence, and I’ll explain why in a moment. Most are against, for two main reasons. One is the electoral maths: an independent Scotland would mean fewer Labour MPs and the possibility of a permanent Tory majority. In fact the experience since the war has shown that in most general elections when Labour won, it would still have had a majority without its Scottish MPs. The second reason has perhaps more resonance: a Scot-free England would become even more unbalanced with the North being abandoned as the south-east ‘powerhouse’ steams ahead. There is a very real risk here, regardless of who wins the election next year. Labour seems concerned to demonstrate it is not just ‘the party of the North’ even though it’s where most of its support lies. It wants to win votes in the south – and there’s a certain irony that while the Tories (who need to win seats in the North) are coming up with suggestions for major investment – such as the HS3 high-speed line from east to west – Labour is silent or cynical. The issue of an unbalanced England, with an increasingly rebellious Wales, will become more and more pronounced driving demands for real devolution within England. A highly centralised England with only London enjoying its own regional government will be unsustainable. Change will have to come and it will be driven by a new coalition of political forces. We can learn much from the tactics of the radical independence campaigners in Scotland who have mobilised new forces and adopted very different tactics which Robin McAlpine will be telling you about in his speech. There are thousands of people out there who want change but feel dis-empowered by politics south of the border.
Let’s look at some more arguments against independence, from a ‘Northern English’ perspective. The recent ‘love bomb’ from 200 ‘celebrities’ organised by Dan Snow was, on one level, laughable. In fact quite a few comedians, ranging from Bruce Forsyth and Ronnie Corbett to George Galloway figured strongly. I wouldn’t take guidance from any of them – would you? But one of the things Snow said did make sense. He wanted to retain the ‘bonds of citizenship’ which unite us. However, in reality the ‘bonds of citizenship’ between Scotland and England are invariably mediated via London and its Westminster bubble. Citizenship is not an abstract idea, it is about real, living links between people. These can, and do, cross national borders. I have more friends in the Irish Republic than Northern Ireland: the border is irrelevant. I very much hope over the coming months we can strengthen our ‘bonds of citizenship’ with the people of Scotland, whatever the outcome of the vote. The same goes for class solidarity. Some on the left have argued that independence is either irrelevant or an obstacle to ‘class solidarity’. Why? We’ve seen precious little of this class solidarity in recent years; I’d welcome more collaboration between trades unionists across the UK. But again, the border is irrelevant. It’s interesting that a growing number of union activists have embraced the ‘yes’ campaign even if the London-based- leaderships are against. And it’s a reflection on how our political elites generally – in all the unionist parties from Tory, Liberal Democrat to Labour – plus the media and the political commentariat – are largely, and often hysterically, anti-independence. No wonder – they stand to lose power and status. That can only be a good reason to vote ‘yes’.
A ‘yes’ vote will have a major impact on the British state, showing that ‘another world is possible’. Yes, it is a leap in the dark. Nobody really knows how an independent Scotland will perform, though the experience of other emergent nations is that after a possibly bumpy start they will blossom. The alternative is to continue with the status quo, perhaps a bit more devolution, but continuing with the shared neo-liberal agenda embraced by the main parties. I think Scotland really would ‘blossom’ politically, economically and culturally – and encourage some shoots of radical growth in England. We need to develop a debate with our friends in Scotland and Wales – and Ireland – about what a future democratised British Isles would look like. That debate needs to take place outside and beyond the London-based elite.
The first step for a new Federal Britain is a ‘yes’ vote on September 18th. Some of you may have seen the excellent ‘Radical Lives’ programmes recently presented by Melvyn Bragg. On Saturday he featured that great English radical, Tom Paine, who played a key role in an earlier ‘independence’ struggle for what became the United States of America. He said “We have it in power to begin the world over again”. Over two centuries later those words still ring true. We should reject the politics of fear and conservatism and embrace radical change in these isles.