Stirrings in the provinces

This is an email I sent to the BBC PM programme after an item on devolving more power to other parts of the UK in the wake of the Scots’ referendum. A bit long, but I thought it worth re-printing …

Dear PM,

I was very interested in your piece about increasing devolution to other parts of the UK.

Clearly the Scots debate has invigorated political debate, and as one of your contributors said, there’s no getting this genie back into the bottle. With 97% of voters registered, and a high turnout predicted, this will have a big impact regardless of the result. A whole country has been involved in discussing how it should work. That doesn’t happen very often.

I had high hopes for the UK after the 2010 election; the coalition promised a raft of constitutional changes. How we vote, the House of Lords, the number and size of constituencies … but then reality kicked in, the Tories wouldn’t play ball, and we’re back where we started. The status quo is too comfortable for too many people.

But things do change, regardless …

In the elections immediately after the second world war, the two big parties garnered more than 95% of the votes between them (96.8% in 1951, 96.1% in 1955). The growth of other parties has seen that huge percentage fall dramatically – in 2010 Tory and Labour managed 65% between them, and other parties took 35%. There is plainly a point at which this decline becomes unsustainable – and I don’t think we’re far away.

How we vote will have to change; a system which gives minority parties majority voting rights cannot be acceptable in a modern democracy. Though I don’t have much time for UKIP, I do wonder if their getting 10% of the votes and no seats in the next election will be the turning point.

The Scots debate has also sparked off some regional resentment in the rest of the UK – Wales in particular, but also Cornwall and Yorkshire (as you made clear). I wonder why regional devolution was received so apathetically in England ten years ago … In 2004, half the voters turned out to vote down the devolution of political powers to the north east, by nearly 80%. Other plans were dropped.

Would it be different now? I think it might be.

The magnet that is London has become more and more powerful, and many people wonder if it isn’t sucking life out of the rest of the country. It will always have the draw of a massive financial centre (though we would be wise to bear in mind the appalling behaviour that gave us the crash of 2008 and subsequent chaos); but other jewels are constantly added to the crown – I’m thinking of the Millennium Dome, Crossrail, HS1, the 2012 Olympics, airport expansion. Shouldn’t we be thinking about distributing some of these goodies further afield, to bring a bit more life and prosperity to other regions?

We could learn from our European neighbours. They all have capitals, of course; but they also have big cities  and towns which have their own distinctive cultures and vibrant economies. The burdens and benefits of being top dog are shared around more fairly, and I believe that the French, Germans, Italians, Spanish and others feel both happier and more equal as a result.

Well, thank you for reading this far, if you have … interesting times ahead!

Kind regards,

Sid Cumberland