Devolution, by ‘eck!

Mark Page, 2014 Aug 01
There’s no place like home


The Papua New Guineans are a fractious lot. A highlanders’ joke suggests there are three types of people: family, in-laws and targets. Another joke: when PNG gained its independence in 1975, an old fella from the village was bitterly disappointed to find out that, during the ensuing celebrations, he was not to receive any underpants. This is not just a word play but an indication of the near irrelevance of the nation state concept to a PNG citizen (as well as a level of poverty where a gift of underpants can be highly prized).


The good folk of Scotland have spent a good deal of the past couple of years contemplating their “independence”.

They have been shamelessly bribed to remain in the union by offers of greatly increased level of political and economic autonomy. Added to current regional powers, and provided that Westminster honour their promises (don’t hold your breath), this will represent a considerable level of regional autonomy.


There are now calls from some of the sturdy folk of Yorkshire for a greater level of local power. After all, as they argue, the population is comparable to that of Scotland. If more local control can work for Scotland why not for Yorkshire?

The Yorkshire Devolution Movement wants power devolved to “the least centralised authority capable of addressing […] matters effectively”[1].

This leads me to consider the two Scottish questions that plague us at the moment; firstly the aforementioned referendum on that poorly defined word independence and secondly (that thirty-something-year-old chestnut) the West Lothian question[2].

With any luck, the Scottish referendum has obliged us to recognise a new truth; that the United Kingdom is way too centralised. In Europe (with the exception of tiny Malta – having about 1% of the UK’s population) no other country’s capital city elite hugs power to itself so greedily[3].

The bicycle of employment

In 1981, in response to the view that high levels of unemployment provoke riots, Norman Tebbit invoked his father’s bicycle of employment[4]. His comment was not, perhaps, causative but in retrospect it certainly seems prophetic.

Swathes of unemployed far from London took Grandpa Tebbit’s bike seriously – or at least they looked like they did. They moved south and east in their droves by bicycle, car, bus, train and pogo stick.

Consequently, south of The Wash one can barely move without tripping over someone (and yes, it’s usually Johnny Foreigner who carries the can for it). In the meantime, the north has languished in the doldrums for decades. In 2012, The Economist felt the need to claim that “the north is becoming another country”[5].

One nation politics

It is, perhaps, ironic that Tebbit’s political party still bangs on about “one nation” while being as guilty as any other of political navel-gazing. Its navel is, of course, firmly located in Westminster. It would be taking it too far to blame the Westminster for all the woes of history but should we now reconsider its relationship to the regions?

From Thatcher onwards we have seen a relentless relocation of power from the provinces to central government. The process has slowed only because local government has little authority remaining for central government to annex.

There is evidence that smaller political units create greater equality and wealth[6]. The Yorkshire Devolution Movement’s “least centralised authority” principle offers the opportunity for greater geographical representation and equality. It is argued by many that decentralised democracy offers diversity and therefore evolution of the political process.

Goodbye West Lothian, I must leave you

Perhaps the days of the nation state are now numbered. After all it has only existed for a few short years of human history (some argue it was the British – whoever they were – who invented it); before then, the city states ruled.

If the regions of the United Kingdom were to all enjoy the greater independence that is now inevitable for Scotland, the West Lothian question would be finally resolved after thirty-seven years of political ambiguity.

Don’t You Want Me Baby?

Papua New Guinea contains many hundreds of unrelated languages that result in extreme decentralisation. Family first, in-laws next, the village next, the language group next, the nation a poor fifth place. People would rather form alliances with foreigners than their economic neighbours; presumably why it has a “poorly developed sense of nationhood” and a “continuing political salience of parochialism, regionalism […] and […] separatism”[7].

East Anglians rule OK

So, dearly beloved, I can only suppose that the optimum is somewhere between the two extremes. Consequently, in the spirit of the times, let me raise the battle cry: “Long live the East Anglians! Freedom or death (probably by speedway[8])!”

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