Opinion: We urgently need a new policy on devolution and federalism

While Scotland is engaged in a vigorous discussion about its own future, it is becoming increasingly clear that the referendum, whatever its outcome, is likely to trigger major soul-searching about constitutional arrangements in the rest of the UK as well, and particularly about the devolution of power within England (e.g. see this letter to the Times, 11th September 2014).

This should be a real opportunity for the Liberal Democrats, as only party which has long been serious about seeing a federal model developed in the UK. However, I am worried that last spring, we made it a lot harder for us to contribute sensibly to this debate. Last spring we voted on a policy paper titled Power to the People’, which contains a policy on federalism so unworkable that it will be a serious obstacle for us, and for progress in this matter. Given the length of the policy paper, there was little chance for a proper detailed debate, and an amendment designed to fix the problem was not carried.

The problematic policy is ‘devolution on demand’, which means that “legislative devolution is available to Cornwall …, to London …, and to any principal local authority (or group of principal local authorities with contiguous boundaries) outside London which has a population of a million or more people.” – the motion can be found here, F14 on pp.54-56; the relevant lines are 70-76.

This means that soon we could have a patchwork of areas devolved to different degrees and at different speeds. This policy has rather worrying implications.

One is that this turns the already fiendishly complex West Lothian Question into constitutional mayhem. Remember, this is the question about MPs from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland who can vote on devolved matters, e.g. health or schools, in England, without their vote having consequences in their own constituencies. Now imagine this with our ‘devolution on demand’ situation, where you may well end up with twenty different kinds of MPs, for whom different sets of areas are devolved, or not, as the case may be; areas which aren’t devolved may then have many policies decided for them by a majority of MPs in whose constituencies the bill in question no longer applies.

The most problematic matter, however, is accountability. In recent days, because of all the NHS propaganda in Scotland, it has perhaps also become clearer to people in England that in the devolved nations, the ruling parties thrive on confusing their voters about which areas of policy are devolved. Welsh Labour’s success depends on this tactic to a degree where the Welsh education minister considered it appropriate to demonstrate against his own schools policy. This particularly blatant attempt at confusing the voters was pointed out by the media, but on the whole, those few journalists focusing on the goings-on in the Welsh Assembly are not very helpful in informing the voters properly – for example here ITV reports a Labour campaign, launched in the Senedd, to save hospitals from their own government’s policy, without ever pointing out the deliberately confusing absurdity of Labour’s behaviour.

Imagine how easy it would be for politicians to do the same if we had a whole patchwork of areas devolved at different speeds? I believe that current party policy on ‘devolution on demand’ is essentially a charter for politicians to avoid accountability to a degree which would seriously jeopardize democracy in this country. In a way, England in particular would be remade in the image of the famous LibDem organizational diagram, and we know how well this works when it comes to abdicating responsibility.

What we need is proper federalism, but in a shape that fosters transparency. I think that England is too big and too diverse to function as one federal unit alongside the other nations. My favoured solution would be to consult widely and to hold a constitutional convention in order to determine appropriate English regions (similar to the Euro-regions, but with considerable tweaks, including splitting the south-east region), and then devolve the same powers to all of them. Perhaps we could get everything to the same level as Wales and Northern Ireland, while Scotland’s Devo Max, if Scotland stays with the rest of us, would presumably always remain a step ahead. In most cases, however, such a system would make it easy to understand what is devolved and what is not, and the mainstream media would have to engage with the system, thereby not leaving accountability entirely to the underfunded local media

If we want to be taken seriously in a national debate about federalism, the party urgently needs to re-open the debate about this issue and undo the recent conference vote. We cannot possibly arrive at the table proposing a system which is only a recipe for power without accountability.

* Maria Pretzler is a Lecturer in Greek History at Swansea University. She blogs at Working Memories , where ancient Greekery and Libdemmery can happily coexist.

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  • peter tyzack 12th Sep '14 - 9:17am

    the troubles in many parts of the world stem largely from communities wishes being over-ruled by the all powerful centralised state. The growth (or resurgence) of regional-based protest is a clear sign that centralism doesn’t work, and we need to get back to the democracy of self-determination. Every decision being taken locally unless it is sensible to take it in conjunction with neighbouring communities at a higher level.
    The term ‘devolving powers’ of itself recognises the mistake, when we should be ‘handing back’ powers, encouraging communities to be more self reliant. Maybe the cuts can be a positive force in enabling local communities to assert themselves.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Sep '14 - 9:40am

    I agree nearly 100% and think the unwinding of over 1000 years of English state in a messy and reckless way is so serious that it would warrant a leadership challenge if Clegg doesn’t call for it to be changed. Campaigning with this policy in May would be like sending your batsmen out to the wicket with broken bats.

  • Mick Taylor 12th Sep '14 - 9:47am

    The resolution passed at Spring Conference showed clearly the ability of Liberal Democrats to make a relatively easy policy fiendishly difficult, even byzantine. As the mover of the failed amendment – which was effectively to restore the former Liberal Party policy of power to the nations and regions of England – I tried to point out how absurd the policy was, but failed to persuade conference.

    What is needed is a federal revolution where -via a constitutional convention – we set up appropriate regional parliaments for England with only one tier of principal local government (plus parishes), hand back powers to Wales and Scotland and the English regions and reduce the powers of the central parliament to truly national issues like overall economic policy, national taxation, defence and foreign policy. We can then cut the number of MPs and produce a proper 2nd chamber that includes representatives from the regions and countries of the UK.

    Oh, and we can have all elections by STV to make sure that all interest and parties are properly represented at all levels of government.

  • Alisdair McGregor 12th Sep '14 - 9:55am

    As Mick has already said, Calderdale Liberal Democrats sponsored a motion to make a much more straightforward devloution strategy, but it got voted down in York. I will be moving an amendment again to improve this policy.

    To my mind, one of the major problems with the policy as proposed is that it promotes the ability for “safe” councils to band together, effectively gerrymandering themselves into an impregnable fortress. One can all too easily imagine (e.g) South Yorkshire Labour councils deciding to devolve power to themselves in an entrenching move. As we’ve seen from the recent problems in South Yorkshire, this kind of Gerrymandered political control does not do anything good for the provision of services or the people living in those areas.

  • Simon McGrath 12th Sep '14 - 9:56am

    Some excellent points though I am yet to be convinced that there is any great demand for devolution to English regions (bear in mind the tiny majority by which the Welsh agreed to devolution the second time round)

    What we do need to be absolutely clear about – otherwise we are handing UKIP a very powerful weapon- is that whatever arrangement we end up with, in the short term for every power (including those they already have) that is handed to the Scottish Parliament Scottish MPs have their right to vote on that issue removed.

  • I have come to the conclusion over the last few weeks that the only way any form of federalism will come about will be through a Yes vote in Scotland. If you look at the sum total of constitutional reform or advances in a genuine devolution of powers after 4 years of Lib Dems in Government, we can see very little of note. The idea that a future Conservative or Labour government will deliver any of these fundamental changes is frankly risible. Examine how they behaved when there was a chance of HoL reform to show you all you need to know. If there is a no vote next week the system will close in upon itself and focus on getting back to business as usual, with a few sops thrown to the Scots to keep them quiet. I think only the shock of Scots voting for independence will move the federalist agenda forward.
    My guess, is that if there is a Yes vote, the SNP will settle for a form of Super Devo-Max (or Independence Lite) in order to keep the pound and minimize the disruption of extricating itself from every UK institution and the Westminster parties will settle for a federalist solution to keep Scotland as close as possible.
    A No vote will see the big two parties return to their normal behavior of seeing how little change they can get away with and how much power they can cling to at the centre.

  • What the problem is about is the voting system, that makes no Tory MP but Tory Rule. The undemocratic way we elect and the system we have to hold our (Servants) our MP’s and other Elected to account. The recent Rotherham Scandal and others show how twisted the System is. A more representative Voting System (you know the one real proportional) and Nation wide is the start. The LibDems lead the way in this. Accountability and openness less secrecy what the elected do say on our behalf.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Sep '14 - 10:32am

    Can someone please tell me the policy includes centralisation on demand if areas change their mind? Is anybody going to watch over this, or do we just wait and see if areas collapse?

  • We now have before us the greatest opportunity for comprehensive reform for decades.
    The Lib Dems should be leading this.However it has been left to UKIP to make calls for a new constitutional settlemen twith a federal UK.
    Meanwhile we appear to be side tracking the big picture and concentrating on breaking up England.!I would remind Lib Dems that there has already been a referendum on regional government for North East England and it was comprehensively defeated.
    There is a good chance of cross party agreement on a Federal solution.Lets get the building block of an English parliament in place first and then discussions can be held on how their powers are devolved

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Sep '14 - 11:11am

    But Joe, what happens when the councillors or the people who demanded it change their minds? You cannot introduce devolution on demand without centralisation on demand by the people, otherwise it will just end up a mess with a load of people doing the bare minimum and jobs not even getting done.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Sep '14 - 11:37am

    Why do we even just give power away to people who want it anyway? Shall we allow London to veto a mansion tax? Or allow Birmingham to introduce Sharia law? Or Labour councils to spend loads of money and go bust?

    We need a party that is a bastion of competence, not one that comes up with radical ideas and slaps each other on the backs for it. I’ll leave it now, but I hate the sort of back slapping politics where ideology matters more than competence.

  • Thanks Maria for explaining much more clearly than I did in my article just why “messy devolution” and panic measures will not do!

    As you point out, the demand from local politicians often comes from those who would like to exploit confusion for their own advantage, and from those who would like to create small ponds in which they can be big fish. This needs to be resisted!

    There is a psychological divide in politics, which fits badly with real needs. One side, the “centralisers”, approve of tidy bureaucracy and like everything to be done from the administrative and political centre. The other side, the “devolvers”, love freedom and want to see a thousand flowers bloom. The paradox is that when we get away from individual psychology and look instead at what works, it is actually the devolved system which really needs a tidy-minded, unified organisational structure – within which different devolved authorities can make different arrangements without causing complete chaos at national level.

    You need a sheep dog to herd a flock of sheep. You don’t need it to control one elephant. When we break up our elephant nation into a herd of sheep-like parts, we’re going to need a good dog!

  • As someone who never found The West Lothian Question remotely interesting I cant see anything wrong with Messy devolution. People in different areas probably want different solutions – that is rather the point isnt it ? The current “Crisis” is temporary & while a lot of Voters want more Local Powers they dont want them very much while Politicians & Beurocrats are very good at holding on to the Power they already have. The important thing is to get the process of spreading Power moving, get real change on the ground. Conventions are a great way to drain away any momentum for actual change.

  • I absolutely, categorically and completely couldn’t disagree more with this article.

    Seriously, ask yourself good people, when the problem is that we have the most centralised political system in the whole of Europe, that for devolution of *all things* we impose a top down rigid policy designed, decided and timetabled in Westminster? Have we learned nothing from Prescot’s failed mayor system, or the disastrous regional police and crime commissioners role that was meant to devolve policing power locally?

    The demand for devolution needs to come from the bottom up. If the people of an area want to govern themselves, let them decide the terms. Let them decide the boundaries. Let them decide the timetable. If Cornwall with a population of 500,000 want full devolution but the 5 million people living in Yorkshire couldn’t care less then don’t impose it on them, but let Cornwall have it, on their terms, in a timeframe that suits them.

    Design a framework, a shopping list of powers than can devolved on demand, flexibly to those areas that want it. The time for big centralised Westminster schemes that look nice on a map is over. The world is becoming an increasingly complicated, fractured ‘mess’. We shouldn’t be fearing this, we should be embracing it. From the ‘mess’ will come innovation, new ideas and a feeling of empowerment that people are so desperately looking for.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Sep '14 - 1:04pm

    Of course we should take into consideration areas such as Cornwall and consult with the local population, but the whole narrative is based around “devolution good, centralism bad” and is a recipe for neglecting areas and shredding the national government from responsibility.

  • Gordon Lishman 12th Sep '14 - 1:43pm

    Devolution is not federalism.
    Enhanced powers for some local governments is not federalism.
    Some questions:
    What happens in the proposed LibDem system when you get a patchwork of different powers devolved to different areas with some choosing to remain under direct rule? Imagine a Health Service in which different areas have different levels of power for delivery of different services, co-ordination and regulation!
    Why is it that the economic disparity between regions of the UK is greater than in the US or China, never mind our European neighbours?
    The failure of English people to grasp the core idea of federalism is one reason which fuels the call for Scottish independence. Why is it so difficult to grasp, given that it applies in, for instance, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria, India, Malaysia, Japan, Germany and Spain with substantial devolution to established, politically-led regions in France, Spain, China, Russia, Italy……………….and so on and on.
    Which is the second largest country in the world without a coherent structure of sub-national government covering the whole country at a regional/provincial/state level?

    Federalism is one of the core ideas of liberalism along with the rule of law and human rights. How many LibDems even grasp the basic idea?

  • Julian Tisi 12th Sep '14 - 2:13pm

    I agree almost entirely with this article. But I would go one step further. Rather than holding a constitutional convention to identify regions then imposing devolution on them, any constitutional convention should be bottom up, asking people in an area whether or not they would like devolved government and if so, what powers they want. I strongly suspect that the vast majority of people, political nerds like us aside, would be happy with the way things are. Unless they’re Scottish or maybe Welsh that is.

    I know that “messy” devolution upsets many peoples’ sensibilities, but it won’t be too different from many countries around the world that have some autonomous regions but where the whole is not a complete federation. I think most non-political people will ask what exactly is the problem to be solved by a further layer of government? And is that further layer of government justified by the added cost and complexity?

  • Malcolm Todd 12th Sep '14 - 2:40pm

    Julian Tisi asks, “what exactly is the problem to be solved by a further layer of government?”
    The problem (well, one problem; Maria has identified others) is one of accountability: already, there are over 100 MPs in the British parliament who can vote on issues that affect only people to whom they are not accountable – “messy devolution” will make this problem much worse. Whether “a further layer of government” is the right solution to this problem is another matter, of course.

    Incidentally, the accusation of top-down rigidity isn’t completely justified. It makes sense for the national government to have the same powers everywhere in the country, and therefore for the same powers to be devolved everywhere to the next layer of government, whatever that is. Within each region/nation/whatever, the extent to which powers are exercised at that level or devolved to a more local level can be decided by the region, based on what’s desired and appropriate for that region. It doesn’t need a central diktat on how powers are divided all the way down the line.

    Another way to look at it: the governing principle should be that power resides at the lowest possible level: the powers that are handed up are only those which every constituent part of the nation agrees it doesn’t want.

  • David Allen 12th Sep '14 - 3:23pm

    I agree with Gordon Lishman.

    Proper federalism is a bit like the Football League. Man United do not get to tell everyone else how to play the game. Man United do get the freedom to play their own game their own way. Provided, that is, they accept a set of rules and a basic league structure which are the same for all the teams.

    All the stakeholders should reach consensus about what teams should play in the league and what the rules of the game should be. Whitehall and Westminster will then have to manage how it all operates from day to day, and organise how complaints, arguments and change requests are addressed by an ongoing consensus-seeking process. However, if some Fourth Division team somewhere want to adopt a 1 – 8 – 1 formation on the pitch, that’s their prerogative.

    (Not one of my best posts, stylewise. Morphs from the sports page onto the business pages, in terms of its metaphors. Oh well, hope somebody can make sense of it…)

  • What can be done about Scotland? As much as I would regret a Yes vote, it would make things constitutionally simpler. However why is the easiest solution not being mentioned? Scotland could have its number of MPs reduced in line with the amount of powers that are devolved. I don’t like the phrase devomax, there is no obvious ‘max’ to devolution, but more powers should be considered. However this will have to be accompanied by a significant reduction in Scottish MPs in Westminster. 30? 35? This would at least have a ring of fairness about it.

    Also can we knock this English parliament idea on its head. It is ludicrous. An English parliament would be far too powerful. Salmond, Robinson, Jones and Boris cannot seriously undermine Cameron as UK PM. However the first minister of an English parliament, let’s say Teresa May could easily undermine the UK PM, let’s say Ed Miliband, if she had significant powers. It would be totally destabilising. Rather like Yeltsin and Gorbachev. And no, I’m not saying there might be a coup, but you get the point.

  • I think the new policy on devolution and federalism is probably better being rebranded as a new structure for local government in England. However, I suggest of more import than arguing on whether Cornwall, Yorkshire or some other region should or shouldn’t have a regional assembly, is having a policy on the role of Westminster in the new order of things.

    If we take the Irish precedence, an independent Scotland would no longer elect MP’s to sit at Westminster, as Westminster would no longer be transacting business that directly impacts Scotland. This further reduction in MP’s from the outside of England would also serve to make Westminster more biased towards England and English needs, (thus a reason why the Welsh are expressing concerns about an independent Scotland) hence Westminster is rapidly reduced to being the English assembly; an equal to the Irish and Scottish assembles. With a potential result that UK&I wide matters will get discussed between the leaders of the various assembles and in the EU forum.

  • Drew Durning 12th Sep '14 - 4:58pm

    The media and the English public will want an English parliament with equal powers to a Scottish devolved assembly (assuming the No votes prevail). I hate to say it but the John Redwood proposal does appear to be the logical tier one devolution route and response to the West Lothian question. We should jointly own that not fight it, .

    Tier 2 could be left at County Council / Met Borough level or beefed up to a regional level if the devolved powers were capable of attracting additional inward investment and job creation. Either way it needs to be fully thought through, logical and structured.I agree the current policy looks messy and should not be how we proceed.

  • Mick Taylor 12th Sep '14 - 6:50pm

    As a political party we put forward our ideas at a general election. The electorate vote and we get a result. This is believed to give the majority party a mandate to carry out its policies.. If we champion genuine federalism with power at an appropriate level and we get a majority then we should implement it. Of course in a coalition we would have to get agreement and we failed to get that for almost all the constitutional reform we supported.

    There is a myth – and Joe Otten clearly believes it – that the Prescott plan was about regional government. It wasn’t. What the people of the NE voted on (and in my view rightly rejected) was a toothless talking shop that would have had neither power nor influence. They didn’t vote on regional government at all, so using that as an excuse to stop a proper federal system just won’t wash.

    A proper constitutional settlement has to have some uniformity about it as Gordon Lishman has rightly pointed out. Piecemeal reform of local government has created a patchwork of systems that no-one understands, with some areas having two-tier councils and others having one with London having an assembly, a mayor and 32 London Boroughs. This is before we add directly elected PCCs and Mayors and I challenge anyone other than a constitutional expert to say who does what.

    Our party was once the champion of a well thought out federal system (See for example the Liberal Party Report, Power to the Provinces). We now advocate a truly convoluted system where absolutely no-one will have any idea who does what, because it will be different depending on where you live and who is in power there.

    Wake up! Otherwise the chance to do anything will run away from us and we’ll be landed with an English Parliament that is totally out of proportion to any other governmental institution in the UK. And it would be dominated by the Tories if we don’t get a proper PR system.

  • Drew – who cares what the media want? An English parliament is the road to the end of the UK for reasons I point out. What I disliked about Redwood was how he presented it as a fait accompli ‘We want an English parliament based in London.’ Quite which ‘we’ he was referring to I don’t know, I’m not sure I remember the English being consulted on such a thing.

    I just don’t see the UK surviving such a move.

  • David Evershed 12th Sep '14 - 7:31pm

    Whatever faults our “Power to the People” policy has, it correctly specifies that new arrangements must be made for the Speaker seat so that voters in one constituency (currently Buckingham) are not disenfranchised in future.

  • Gareth Young 12th Sep '14 - 8:08pm

    It doesn’t matter whether you consider England to be too big. The English should be consulted on what they want, and if they want an English parliament they should have it.

    An English parliament elected under a proportional system, with a commitment to localism and with regional grand committees sitting in the regions (whatever those regions are Cornwall, Yorkshire, London) would be fantastic. The Liberal Democrats and Labour need to get over their fear of England.

  • Maria Pretzler 12th Sep '14 - 11:02pm

    Apologies for not coming back to participate in this discussion: a busy day kept me from returning here earlier.
    Thanks for so many good contributions – the thread was a very pleasant read, and I am not only saying that because a good number of the posts agree with me!

    I have to say, I still don’t understand why anybody (Joe Otten, Matthew Green) would want to defend the policy we have at the moment.

    Let me look at some of the arguments and try to respond (in separate posts).

    I’d also like to note that I am about to finish another post on the importance of accountability and the role of the media in this process – so I’ll keep stuff on these matters short.

  • Maria Pretzler 12th Sep '14 - 11:09pm

    Matthew Green wrote (passages in quotation marks)

    “It was premised on the basis that the usual constitutional apathy would prevail in England, and that the best way of breaking this was through a bottom-up process that would move faster in some areas than others.”

    The problem is what ‘bottom up’ actually means. It sounds, quite romantically, like a grassroots movement. I suspect that it would usually actually be something organised by a fairly small political clique, and mostly for their own benefit.

    “This is much better than trying to impose some form of regional devolution from a great height. ”
    I point you to David Allan’s post. We can all play the game as we like, but it’s best for everybody if the rules are the same. Distaste for centralisation should not lead to a vote for counter-productive chaos.

    “Since we believe that greater devolution will lead to better government, this would lead to a proper constitutional settlement in due time.”

    Erm… do we believe this? I don’t. It’s oddly dogmatic, and also wrong, at least in this universal form. Greater devolution *only* leads to better government if the democratic process actually works, i.e. if the voters are in a position to hold the politicians to account. I hope LDV accepts my next article, in which I’ll explain that smaller units do not always guarantee that this is the case. You just have to work out how voters actually get the information which allows them to vote in an informed manner, and you’ll see that the idealistic dogma you stated there is, like most dogmas, not really universally applicable to the real world – in fact, we have to work hard and carefully to make it apply. Let police commissioners stand as your warning example.

  • Maria Pretzler 12th Sep '14 - 11:18pm

    Joe Otten said….
    (his passages in quotation marks)

    “Supporters of English regional devolution have to demonstrate a resurgence in appetite for it since Prescott’s referendum. Until they do, I won’t let it stand in the way of any actual devolution.”

    As has already pointed out in this thread, this is a red herring. The referendum was, in the end, fought on issues which had little to do with the actual question. I think the mood has changed significantly. A constitutional convention (which is rapidly becoming inevitable, I think) would probably also change the debate. We can’t use this regrettable experiment as an excuse for plumping for inferior solutions (if we can call piecemeal devolution a solution at all)

    “I take the point that the media are indulging confusion over which levels of government are responsible for what.”
    That’s not actually the main problem. The problem is that the media aren’t reporting it at all, and are unlikely to be *able* to report it properly if you don’t devolve in units that make proper sense.

    “Keeping it simple doesn’t seem to help – what they are agitating for here is a centralised unitary state – which would have more narrative drama and make their jobs simpler and more interesting. We’ve had this problem since forever with local councils and central government, and it is wishful thinking to think that uniform devolution will suddenly bring clarity.”

    That’s not quite what I am saying – but you won’t believe it – this works pretty well in properly federal countries. You know, those with that unified federal devolved system you seem to find so bad. If Westminster simply doesn’t have certain powers, and these are the business of regional governments everywhere, the media do get interested. The chaos, by the way, isn’t caused by them, but by the messy constitutional arrangements. Which our party policy wants to make even messier.

    What’s wrong with evidence-based policy? It actually works well in quite a few countries! (Some people seem to use rhetoric implying that we in the UK are somehow special and destined to have messy constitutional arrangements – I don’t think that this is a sensible argument).

    “I agree that power should be seen to flow from the bottom rather than the top. Piecemeal devolution where it is demanded is precisely an expression of that, and uniform devolution is precisely the opposite.”

    The problem is that ‘power flowing from the bottom’ is an illusion. It would actually flow from the top, too – just a top located in a different place. It’s not as if the voters will climb the barricades and demand it. It’s always going to be politicians and policy woks at different levels who will essentially impose the idea. I’d like us to have a system which makes sure that this is done in a manner which gives the voters the best possible chance to hold politicians accountable. What we have as our policy now is not that system.

  • Maria Pretzler said,

    “The problem is that ‘power flowing from the bottom’ is an illusion. It would actually flow from the top… It’s always going to be politicians and policy wonks at different levels who will essentially impose the idea. I’d like us to have a system which makes sure that this is done in a manner which gives the voters the best possible chance to hold politicians accountable.”

    I am an engineer, and I see this excellent comment as providing something like the First, Second and Third Laws of an important new discipline, Political Engineering. That is, the mechanistic analysis of how alternative political systems actually function in practice, and its application to design systems which (unusually) stand a fighting chance of doing something reasonably like what their designers thought they would do.

    The Soviet system is a perfect example of how not to achieve “power flowing upward from the bottom”. The structure of multiple concentric power circles, each electing a smaller, inner and superior circle, was designed to make power flow upward. Instead, its complexity helped the leadership to make power flow down from the top and to impose control.

    That is not what one would guess intuitively. We found out the hard way by watching what Stalin did, so as Maria puts it, we can now have an evidence-based policy on the subject. Maybe in future we shall have an academic discipline of political engineering which will clarify more precisely why the Soviet system was a bad one.

    In the mean time, we must strive to design a rational federal system – not just listen to whoever shouts loudest!

  • Maria Pretzler 13th Sep '14 - 12:10am

    David Allen –
    ‘political engineering’ – I like it!

    I guess it might have a bad sound to some people who hear an echo of ‘manipulation’ in this phrase.

    But I like the image – we can’t build a good bridge without working out (1) what it is supposed to do, (2) how it is supposed to do it and (3) what could possibly go wrong, and how can we prevent it from going wrong.

    We also can’t simply say that all we want is a bridge – if it’s called bridge, it will be deemed good. It’s only really good if it actually connects the two points where the road hits the river on either side, and if it doesn’t break if you try to cross it.

    Devolution is not good per se – it’s only good if it devolves powers in a way that makes sense (the right powers to the right level) and if it actually fulfils the main purpose of making power more accountable, enabling the voters to do their job properly. Yet I am staggered to see that quite a few advocates of devolution seem scarcely interested in the mechanism by which this crucial accountability is actually possible.

    Isn’t it odd that we take it for granted that nobody would build a random bridge just for the sake of building bridges (in Victorian times they called this a ‘folly’, I believe) – yet we think we can just embark on random devolution experiments, because devolution, whenever it happens, is supposed to be always the right thing?

    We can also look at a recently broken devolution experiment – Police commissioner elections, anybody ?

  • Maria Pretzler 13th Sep '14 - 12:15am

    Picking out one more thing from the thread (apologies for not answering so many other posts – I have read them all, and with great interest and appreciation)

    Mick Taylor, Alisdair McGregor

    Thanks for tabling/supporting the amendment last year. I voted for it, as you might imagine.

    Alisdair – you say you are going to table an amendment. Is this happening at this conference, or are you planning it for Spring? I’d like to support it, if possible.

  • A more practical issue: the different bits of the UK already have a variety of systems of local Government.

    I understand the desire for standardisation, but it’s not possible because it doesn’t exist. Different areas are different, and therefore want different powers under their control.

  • Adam Robertson 13th Sep '14 - 1:54am

    I think Maria Pretzler is right to address this question, as it does need addressing. She is right that we need to look towards federalism, as will enable to keep the United Kingdom stronger, while preserving the Union, in a new form. Indeed Devolution was made stronger by the European Union, recognizing that regions and federal regions within a state, had a key part to play in delivering European policy to the local level. This was done by setting up, the Committee of the Regions in 1992.

    Indeed, it was partly this what inspired Scotland and Wales for devolution, as well, as the Thatcher Years. Plaid Cymru was anti-EU, like the Labour Party, but this helped them changed their minds towards the European Union. Peter Hain recognized that federal states in Germany, such as Baden-Wittenburg and Bavaria, were being recognized at the European Union level, why couldn’t Wales and Scotland. So I think a federal state, would be a positive way forward.

    However, I am concerned at Maria’s comment regarding Wales, not following Scotland’s Devo Max. I think Wales and Scotland, should have the same powers. I think Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, is right to call for a Constitutional Convention. I think the Conservatives, are surely and slowly, recognizing this – they need to adapt to current political conditions, to ensure that the United Kingdom, remains ‘One Nation’. They need to follow the theory of Edmund Burke and follow out the practical policies of Benjamin Disreali, to ensure that this country remains as one.

  • Maria Pretzler 13th Sep '14 - 2:14am

    Ian Manning –
    I don’t quite understand your point. Yes, there are various forms of local government (I know some LibDems who’d like to have a look at that as well, but I am not concerned with it here) – but on the whole, the powers they have are similar.

    What I am talking about here is devolution of powers the parliament currently has, down to a regional level (although some aspects might go further down. I do like the idea of devolving some taxes to local level – local corporation tax worked pretty well where I grew up, for example).

  • Maria Pretzler 13th Sep '14 - 2:18am

    Adam Robertson –
    I am fairly open-minded about what solution Wales would get. I do see some very serious problems with accountability in Wales., since the Welsh media landscape is evidently insufficient to scrutinise the Welsh government properly. But we are where we are. I am not even sure whether Wales would want full devo-max? Anyway, I am not overly fused about the exact status of Wales: if proper tax raising powers finally make the WAG more properly accountable, that might be a bonus.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Sep '14 - 7:34am

    Both sides of this debate can come together by recognising the following:

    1. A completely uniform federal system wouldn’t accurately reflect cultural differences and regional wishes.
    2. A completely laissez faire approach will be a mess and not fill the public with confidence and pride in our democracy.

    No one is pitching exactly at the two extremes, but if we can kind of come together then I think concerns would be addressed. However I do feel that the current policy in its current form is not acceptable. It needs to be amended at a conference so that it doesn’t sound like if Lib Dems get in power you aren’t just going to take your hands off the steering wheel out of an eccentric dislike for exercising power.

    As someone who wasn’t voting Lib Dem, but was coming back round to supporting the party again, I’ve been put off by the cheerleading in the manifesto and on the airwaves of radical devolution “on demand” without much concern about the consequences.

  • Clive trussell 13th Sep '14 - 9:14am

    No time to read all of the above- so this may have been mentioned. In “New Scientist” last week , about Nations. It seems that the ideal base number of people is around 150. I f a system could be organised from this base through a set number of basses of say 20- then enough of them that is workable,- and so-on, up to a national /E.U level. Subsidiarity.

  • Stephen Donnelly 13th Sep '14 - 1:10pm

    Simon McGrath is partly correct by saying that there is no demand for additional levels of government. The electorate will always quite rightly be very suspicious of the need for new assemblies. But there is a reaction against ‘Westminster’ government.

    To be acceptable, and worthwhile , devolution should be combined with a reduction in government, fewer elected representatives, and a reduced level of spending on administration. Of course PR is also essential.

    Devolution of power from the centre is linked with reform of local government. One is not possible without reform of the other.

  • David Allen 13th Sep '14 - 4:37pm

    Maria, thanks for your beautifully simple analysis of bridge engineering, which ought to persuade everyone to tackle political engineering in a rather similar way!

    Yes, “engineering” when applied to social goals suggests a nasty negative connotation. However, conventional engineers would point out that theirs is an honourable profession, which aspires to high standards and is often well regulated. A bridge engineer must convince the safety authorities that his/her bridge is safe before they will let the public drive across it. To do that, the bridge engineer must explain how the design works, and show that there is an appropriate maintenance and inspection programme in place which will keep it safe.

    A “political engineer” is rarely asked how he/she intends to create and maintain a safe governmental structure, how its design links to its goals, or indeed, what its fundamental goals actually are – other than fuzzy ideals like “national pride”, “community politics” or indeed “freedom”. However, you have declared two very important goals, “transparency” and “accountability”. I would also add “compatibility” between interacting tiers of administration, “effectiveness of democratic oversight” to reduce the scope for capture of government by powerful (e.g. corporate) interests, and, of course, “cost-effectiveness”.

    A political engineer who is working openly toward these principles is the very opposite of a secretive Machiavellian! He/she is designing a system that will work openly, work fairly, and do what voters ask of it. By contrast, many of the proponents of “messy devolution” are just looking toward the main chance.

    Devolution is difficult, as you point out. It isn’t a panacea. For me, the main purpose is to break up a highly centralised British governing system which has been captured by corporate interests and the super-rich. However, the Poulson saga of “our friends in the North” from the Sixties stands as a warning that devolved government can be captured, too. If we do devolution badly, it won’t help, and it won’t last.

    Should Scotland vote Yes? Well, in my view, the ideal of independence and social justice is not stupid or ignoble. The problem is only that far too much emotional energy has been invested in it. It could work out OK, and it is highly unlikely to be ruinously expensive – but the crucial question will be whether our future governmental systems are well engineered!

  • John Critchley 14th Sep '14 - 7:31am

    Without a written constitution for the UK, or a federal UK, nothing will succeed. Deciding the structures and who will be responsible for what, limiting the power of the central executive, and putting the individual citizen at the centre of things, are the cement that would hold it together. Think USA and it’s constitution.

    The lack of a constitution will also be the undoing of the EU, run from the centre with little real democratic accountability and without anyone really understanding what ‘federal’ actually means either in theory or practice.

    Writing a constitution for the UK won’t be easy, but without it crisis will follow.

  • Gareth Hartwell 15th Sep '14 - 8:18am

    Very good article. I think the elephant in the room is that for a federal UK to work properly, England makes no sense as a political concept. England needs to be relegated to a role as a historic country and football team for this to work properly. Then the English regions can become nations within a federal UK with similar powers as Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland.

    Maybe this sounds radical but what political power currently exists for England (as opposed to UK) anyway?! We don’t have a parliament or any mechanism for joint decision-making so I don’t think this is too much of a leap. And for those concerned that this would mean that England couldn’t carry on having their own sporting identity, Yorkshire hasn’t existed as a single political identity since the 1960s.

  • Gareth Hartwell 15th Sep '14 - 8:25am

    P.S. jedibeeftrix is probably right that a useful starting point for the new nations to replace England would be broadly based on the heptarchy of nations prior to the unification of England. But I don’t think it can be exactly the same because while Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria would be viable I don’t think anybody would suggest that Sussex, Kent or Essex would be viable as separate kingdoms. In any case, it may well be that in some areas of the country, people would feel that the borders would naturally be in different places than the historic ones.

  • I think that the best outcome from the referendum would be that the UK remained intact, but adopted a federal structure. Scotland / Wales / Northern Ireland / London are obvious existing units, and then we have the English regions – say North East / North West / East Anglia / South East / West Country.

    As with constituencies the aim should be to balance population numbers and regional identity.

    (with apologies for posting the same thing on separate threads)

  • Stephen Hesketh 15th Sep '14 - 11:08am

    @Gareth Hartwell15th Sep ’14 – 8:25am
    Steady on re the heptarchy … it ignores parts of northern England being in ‘Scotland’ at times, some highly mobile Angle-period borders, the Scandinavian Kingdom of York, Danelaw etc. Remember history is always written by the victors … in this case often by the later period Wessex Saxons. Remember England is named after the Angles of the North and Midlands rather than the Saxons of the south!

    Present day regional identity must trump someone in London once again totting up numbers and drawing lines across the rest of the country … on going problems in Africa and the Middle East spring to mind!

  • @Stephen Hesketh – maybe we should resurrect the Danelaw and East Anglia can become part of Denmark again? It’s probably Norwich’s easiest route back to beating the likes of Bayern Munich!

  • I’d point out that Cornwall as a whole really doesn’t want devolution (there’s been plenty of polling on this), and the policy set out in the pre-manifesto is a vote loser. This is one of those policies that probably came about because Andrew George is a former MK supporter, so I expect he’s been fighting for it for a while, when we got the unitary authority it made little difference to peoples lives and the consensus seems to be that it’s made the structure more obscure. The general population shows little to no interest, and I suspect after the Scottish vote few will want to consider devolution for another 50 years or so.

  • Roger Heape 15th Sep '14 - 3:59pm

    As a LD member for over 50 years I am absolutely in incandescent at the current Lib dem line.The most likely result of the Scottish referendum is no vote.This will b e followed by Max Devo for Scotland.This presents a generational opportunity to create federal UK with English, welsh and N I parliaments as well.There is is a good chance of o cross party agreement.Except of course from the Lib Dems who manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory
    Cleggs option of .English devolution to regions was only supported by 19% in a you gov poll over the weekend with over 60% supporting the federal option.We never learn-people will not vote change that introduces new layers of governance and cost.Voters rejected the idea of regional government for the north east on those grounds.Do we never learn.Faced with Max devo choices why do we go for the one that evidence shows commands low public support.?
    I think this issue demands being sorted our rapidly by holding an emergency party meeting and a ballot of members to
    decide what line the party should take.
    having an English parliament does not rule out further devolution of powers budgets if it so decided>but to break up England into small pieces as the first step seems lunacy and a death wish in terms of likely public ridicule.

  • Gordon Lishman 15th Sep '14 - 5:55pm

    It is a little worrying that this debate seems mainly to be uninformed by the experience of federal and devolved structures in the rest of the world and that it hasn’t taken account of the important economic aspects of the case for stronger structures at a regional level.
    On the first point: “asymmetric devolution” in other countries, seems to work reasonably well in terms of different sizes of unit: California, Montana, Rhode Island and Mississippi are not the same in area, population or history. Neither are the Basque Regions the same as Andalusia or Val D’Aosta the same as Lazio or Bremen the same of Bayern. Similarly the extent of devolved functions can differ from a standard basic set of functions in order to reflect appetite and interest. At another level, Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus are not the same as Germany or France.
    The medium to long-term effect of substantial political devolution is to decrease disparities of wealth and income between regions. The post 1945 German and, particularly, Japanese experience shows that strong regions can attract investment and stimulate growth. Why does Boris Johnson go to China with David Cameron other than to promote investment and business for London? Isn’t it ludicrous that it is only Britain’s richest region which has that opportunity? In general, the post-war history of regional development in the UK has been incoherent, inconsistent and varying with central government fashion (see, for instance, the good John Smith Institute report on the subject).
    Robert Putnam, the US sociologist and political scientist who studied Italian regionalisation, provided another useful insight: in the Italian regions as in Germany and Japan (and, more recently, experience in Scotland, Wales and N Ireland has confirmed) that, following devolution or a federal settlement, the population comes to two, long-term conclusions: (1) disappointment that the new system consists of the same old sort of politicians as the old; and (2) a fierce determination not to go back to central rule from Bonn, Berlin, Tokyo or Rome.
    One more boring detail: despite his reputation, Machiavelli was a strong advocate of power exercised by communities: a sort of fifteenth century civic nationalism!

  • Stephen Hesketh 15th Sep '14 - 7:28pm

    Gordon, my starting position is that anything that takes power from Westminster and returns it back to regional and local communities has got to be a good thing. Clearly some things such as defence can only sensibly by organised at a National level but everything else should be run from the most appropriate regional or local level.

    I’m not sure this is a once in a life-time opportunity but getting right during the next Parliament would clearly be the best option! This is obviously a great passion and area of expertise on your part. Any chance of an article outlining your views on this topic for those of use who are only instinctive decentralisers? Thank you.

  • Maria Pretzler 15th Sep '14 - 10:02pm

    Gareth Hartwell –
    your version of a federal UK is the one I am thinking of. I agree with you that a federal UK can[t work with England intact as one big unit. I am not really fussed about sporting identity. Most federal countries have one football team. In fact, the UK with its four teams for one country is seen as rather eccentric in this respect.

    Gordon Lishman –
    If you wrote this in disagreement with my article then I am not sure how your argument works. I don’t really disagree with anything you say about devolved regions. But I assume you are trying to suggest that what we decided last spring is somehow going to create the kind of system you are offering in your examples. So I am going to try to explain why I disagree with that idea. I apologise if I completely misunderstood what you were trying to argue.

    I don’t think different sizes of regions are a problem, and I think that regions can work very well indeed. Having grown up in a federal country myself I think it’s a good model (although I think that even the bigger ones among Austria’s Laender, at about two million inhabitants, though working reasonably well economically, are a little too small to avoid corruption due to an elite that’s drawn from too small a pool and manages to have its fingers in every pie).

    However, I would argue that in order to work as regions in themselves (which, I think isn’t at all a given for just any area you choose to put a line around), these units
    (1) have to be large enough (several million probably best)
    and/or (preferably and)
    (2) have a strong existing identity.

    One can’t be to rigid about this, since it clearly can work for smaller regions if you have a strong identity and a fairly cohesive society within that region, and obviously, in smaller countries such as Austria or Malta slightly different mechanisms are at work, although the problem of small-elite corruption is probably a matter of absolute size, not relative. If you have a larger region, preferably large enough for a proper media landscape (Wales too small, Scotland large enough), it’s perhaps easier to deal with a few arbitrary boundaries and fuzzy identity around the edges: a critical mass can probably absorb people and develop a common identity. But an area that’s quite small and doesn’t have a developed identity already is likely to be trouble, both because voters will not easily engage and because the area won’t have the media infrastructure to allow proper scrutiny.

    Your examples demonstrate working regions within federal systems – but this is not evidence that this has to work for regions constituted in every which way: your examples, as far as I am familiar with them, were built on very strong regional identities – the devolved regions weren’t created at random impulse ‘from below’ (i.e.instigated by some form of local elite, because let’s not kid ourselves about the nature of potential ‘grassroots’ in this context) and at different speeds. These are well designed federal systems, often based on very ancient regional identities, and sometimes very strong regional identities which trump the sense of belonging to the whole state (Italy!!!). You can’t just expect to create that sort of thing by hoping that it will happen in a sensible way based on different regional grassroots movements. We do have to end up with an overall system that works for everybody!

    I have absolutely nothing against regionalisation – in fact, I am strongly in favour – but I am convinced that it has to be done properly and systematically, not piecemeal and pretty much at random. I think that the plan we currently have is not going to lead to the outcomes you suggest are possible, because it won’t create devolved areas which actually allow the voters to hold their politicians to account (see my article, published on Monday, on devolution and accountability), or which will inspire the voters to engage properly.

    It makes me extremely angry that anybody in the LibDems (even more so somebody tasked with writing a policy on constitutional matters) could be so irresponsible to think that devolution every which way has to be good by default and will work. It works well if those regions make sense. The mechanism our political reform committee in its wisdom(!) has come up with is unlikely to create such a system. At best it will work for some and not for others; for example, I am particularly wondering about those areas which will be left over when the most willing regions have formed according to this system. Frankly, the more one thinks about the plan we voted through last year the more it’s clear how…. half-baked it is. And that’s the politest word I can think of, most others I am actually thinking of would trigger the auto-censor, I suspect.

  • Maria Pretzler 15th Sep '14 - 10:25pm

    I hope LDV won’t mind, but I am going to leave a link to Labour List here:
    Sign of the times that there is actually a discussion about potential federalism and devolution of powers going on there as well.

    This is absolutely the time when we need a *workable* policy on this.


  • Eddie Sammon 15th Sep '14 - 10:35pm

    I am a bit nervous about getting rid of England and creating “north western law” and “north eastern law”. However, I agree entirely that we can’t turn the UK into the Lib Dem organisational diagram.

  • Roger Heape 17th Sep '14 - 5:56am

    Maria as a matter of urgency I suggest an emergency motion for conference on a Federal Uk in the light of the Scottish referendum result.It should call for the powers agred for Scotland to be given to an English Welsh and Northern Irish Parliaments.
    It would then be up to the English Parliament to come with a consistent and carefully thought out plan for moving som e of their powers to local; government.

  • There are practical issues.
    The UK has a bridge built to win an election!
    Tidiness is very difficult mostly because of the centralisation of Whitehall and the donut round London. The rest of England really ought not to be held back by parts of the SE.
    Under no circumstances should we revive the Prescot plan which offered a miserable deal.
    There is a need to look at the financial underpinning because it has the potential of being unfair.
    In England, we need to make a fuss or we will end up with a single English Parliament with the same over centralising problems..

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