COVID-19: A new argument for devolution?

At every election, it appears that discussion develops on the matter of devolution from centralised government, predominantly of England from London-centric parliaments; understandable, considering the sheer economic differences across the nation. This argument takes on another perspective when we consider the devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales and the more recently resumed Northern Ireland Assembly, enabling their respective citizens to impact their locality more acutely than a centralised government ever could.

The entire United Kingdom has felt the impact of Covid-19. Whether for better or worse, it has impacted upon us beyond our comprehension, whether it be our micro-economics, social interactions, personal health or even our ideological perspective. As the days, weeks and months pass, we tune in or read in the news that central government is succeeding and failing in often equal

measure, challenged by the opposition, led by the newly-anointed Sir Keir Starmer. We see that lockdown measures are too heavy on our liberty, yet soon challenged as being too lax. Many doubt that any of the potential governments offered to the electorate in 2019 would have been up to the task. The issue highlights the fact that the mainstream parties are flawed, but so is our system of government.

Discussion regarding regional easing of restrictions is already fluid within national and regional forums, including the Institute for Government (2019) and the Institute for Public Policy Research (2020). The wider purpose of this is to enable us to recapture our liberty and rebuild from the Blitzkrieg of economic devastation incurred through lockdown. If this is the case, then should we not shift towards regionally-devolved governments in England, affording the opportunity for the people of a region to benefit from the full attention of their respective assembly? Rather than feeling forgotten, misled and (simply put) ‘disenfranchised’, individuals understand their region intimately and recognise the measures that stimulate its industries and wider economies. They also understand their personal and professional needs, such as roads, rail and sea defences. Moving forward, the urgent need for a greater environmental improvement strategy will become more apparent as we develop our environmental understanding, having seen the environmental improvements gained due to the national lockdown.

So, what would a devolved United Kingdom look like? The devolved assemblies of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales would remain, in addition to retaining their existing borders. However, England would be split into four unique regions: Greater London, Northern England, Southern England and Central England. Each would possess their own assembly, filled with representatives elected by citizens of the region in question. Funding would be enabled through the drastic streamlining of central government departments and the scrapping of the House of Lords. Through the devolved system, assemblies would be able to: set tax rates, commission public services, monitor expenditure and, most critically, debate the issues specific to the region – to name just a few proposals. Central government in its current form would be revitalised, with each regional/national assembly contributing ten to fifteen elected members to the national debates of the time.

Existing parties, such as the Yorkshire Party, have assembled a solid grip on what a devolved region can offer the electorate, in addition to how this can be funded sensibly and still deliver on existing key capital projects. Critically, it neglects to address the continued existence of central government, but positively realises the existing potential within its own regional demographic and ambition. Without a doubt, the existence of a federal government is paramount – anything less would be ludicrous to envisage, with matters of the state such as defence and geopolitical relations being defined by how we all co-operate as a single entity. The purpose of devolution would be to greater enhance the lives of citizens through a locally-funded and locally-invested political system, thereby enabling greater levels of political integrity, transparency and, where necessary, frugality.

Accountability rules the roost in the era of 24/7 news and social media. Everyone is an expert in their field; the capability to appoint regionally and hold those people to account would acknowledge an increasing electoral demand. I, for one, would much prefer a smaller federal government outside London, with a larger regional parliament that I can hold to account if they make a hash of yet another simple concept and turn it into a bureaucratic, over-budget and under-delivered twenty-first century nightmare.

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