Devolution Dialogue on Democracy Day

Today is “Democracy Day”, a project running across BBC TV and Radio.  It’s fitting that in this same week, Nick Harvey and I have published proposals to bring decisions closer to those whom they affect: a prerequisite for real democracy in Britain.

Here on Liberal Democrat Voice, we have already had considerable debate over the merit of “devolution on demand” as compared to a big-bang, devolution-everywhere-now solution.  My views are well rehearsed!

However, the benefit of the CentreForum Devolution Dialogue in which Nick and I set out our alternative positions is that it brought us together in a greater measure of consensus than we anticipated.  Nick is still with those of you prefer to set out a scheme of devolution and press ahead with it everywhere.  His articulation of the case persuaded me that we should be more ambitious than simply letting everywhere devolve at their own pace.  He is right to say that we cannot leave some parts of the country permanently in limbo, still at the mercy of Westminster/Whitehall centralisation.

Yet his own prescription as to how local and regional government should be structured also helps illustrate why a wholly top-down solution is fraught with difficulty.  Nick proposes immediate abolition of all English local authorities, and their replacement with up to 150 “local governments” and up to 20 (he prefers a smaller number) “regional governments”.  It sounds elegant and straightforward, but I know what practical difficulties it will come up against at local level.  England does not seem to be a place susceptible to neat solutions.

So Nick and I agreed in our joint conclusion that he is right to want an ambitious timetable to devolve everywhere, and that I am (or at least might be!) right to want to start the process from the bottom-up.  We therefore propose an English Devolution Convention, involving local leaders and civic society, to draw up the boundaries of devolved institutions, and to do so by 2020.  Some areas would get their devolution earlier, but none would be left behind forever.

William Wallace writes in his foreword to the document:

“As Scotland and Wales take their third stride on the devolution journey they [Nick and Paul] agree England must surely now take its first.”

Meanwhile, we are also determined that the Tory knee-jerk of rearranging deckchairs in Westminster with schemes for “English Votes for English Laws” is a distraction from the real priority of devolution.

We hope our contribution to the debate on this will help move things forward and give Liberal Democrats something to argue for and campaign on.  Our proposals have already received positive coverage in Cornwall and Yorkshire:  now we must fill in the gaps around the rest of the country!

A devolution dialogue: Evolution or revolution is available here [pdf] and we will both be interested to see your comments on improving British democracy, on this post and elsewhere.

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