Monday, 16 March 2015
Unpublished letter 3: unjoined-up thinking
Naturally, as a died-in-the wool Liberal for over half a century I believe firmly in the devolution of decision making to the lowest possible level. "Horses for courses," as one of my friends and fellow devotees put it: whatever is appropriate for whatever level, be it the UN, EU, UK, Nation, Region, Local Authority, or Parish. So I'm predisposed to welcome the UK government's decision, announced a few weeks ago, to devolve all sorts of powers, including the organisation of the NHS in the area, to Greater Manchester.
However, last week local government minister Eric Pickles stooped to yet more Westminster micro-management by imposing additional rules for local authorities to follow on, (would you believe it?), parking fines. (They must allow a 10 minute leeway for motorists overstaying their welcome.) Hence this letter:
How can the government justify devolving control of the NHS and umpteen other things to Manchester and yet not be prepared to trust them on eduction or even parking fines?
Apart from the massive illogicality of these two decisions the UK government's behaviour in the devolution package to Manchester raises three other important questions:
1. Why is the devolution of powers conditional on their having a directly elected mayor? As recently as 2012 our central government forced 11 cities to hold referendums on whether or not to have a directly elected mayor. Only one, Bristol, voted "Yes. " (and Doncaster, which already had one, voted to retain it.) The rest, including Manchester, voted "No."
Frankly, I'm not in favour of referendums in our representative system of democracy, but if they are imposed, then a democratic government should accept the decision rather than try to overturn it with a bribe. This course has an autocratic flavour of : "We shall keep on bullying you until you do not what you want but what we want.."
2. Is the city region the most appropriate area to exercise devolved powers? I think such a system gives too much prominence to the needs of the central city and not enough of the rest of the area, and should prefer such powers to be devolved to the economic regions as presently defined. Others might prefer the historic counties, or combinations of them. This is something to be discussed.
3. Why is this devolution to Greater Manchester granted now, when the whole future of devolved government in the UK is in the melting pot (the so-called West Lothian question) and must be sorted out after the election?
The panic stricken leaders of the three major parties rushed into a promise to grant further powers to the Scottish parliament in an ill-considered and unnecessary attempt to ward off a "Yes" vote for Scottish independence. It is right that they should stick to this mistaken promise so as not to further besmirch the reputation of our political system, but beyond this there should be no further "of the cuff" meddling until after the election.
Then a properly constituted People's Convention or Royal Commission should be set up to attempt to rationalise the whole system. An outline of how I think this should be done is set out in this earlier post.
Once agreed the rights of each level of government should be guaranteed in a written constitution.