Governing a modern, stable polity is largely about collecting and re-distributing tax. In a rational, well-designed devolved regime, everyone can see that there is no magic money-tree and that the funding round is a zero-sum game: winners only win at the expense of losers. In contrast, piecemeal devolution as at present being proposed and (here and there) implemented in the UK has the advantage (for a politician) of not being a zero-sum game. Politicians can appear to promise (and sometimes deliver) real increases in funding for the devolved parts without the impact on the whole really being clearly understood. To the lucky devolved recipients, it is in fact very much like a magic money tree - and the rest don’t seem to notice. What better way could there be of wooing voters or of bribing would-be secessionists to stay within the fold?
Tories promise extra funding for core cities.
Labour talk about cities and regions.
All parties sing the praises of limited, demand-driven devolution rather than an up-front design process. How very British.
No party is presenting a compelling big picture of how the whole UK might operate if and when completely devolved. I suppose they want to keep the magic money tree budding for as long as possible.
England presents the most difficult obstacle. A devolved, federal UK would require England to be divided into regions, otherwise the English vote would dominate all proceedings and England would vote itself the largest share of the tax available for redistribution. The other nations, acting together, would be nowhere near a majority to counter-balance England. But this tactic of dividing England would risk stirring English independence.
We therefore face a situation in which the only workable federal structure would almost certainly lead to a reversion back to a pre-UK picture with separate, sovereign nations of England, Wales and Scotland (and with the shame state of Northern Ireland urgently looking for a home).
Three choices are therefore presented:
- Bring about devolution through stealth (and make sure your political friends and sponsors are well rewarded - tories’ friends amongst the developers and entrepreneurs in a handful of successful cities; labour’s amongst favoured sections of local government).
- Go for a full, federal solution with an English Parliament - and watch a dominant, unleashed England lead the way to independence for the 4 nations.
- Recognise that the game is up for the UK, and initiate a series of multi-lateral discussions aimed at smoothing the path to mutual independence.
Option 3 is the strongest for the long-term but none of our politicians has the stature to sell the case for it.
Another British missed opportunity in the making.