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Whitehall will resist English devolution

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Commitments given during Scotland’s referendum would, if implemented, leave the Scots with their own spending, taxing, borrowing and even welfare powers.

Wales will get something similar. Such super-devolution could see England left behind as the most centralised big country in the developed world.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy higher public expenditure than the English, operate their own separate governments and retain full voting rights at Westminster.

When Scotland and Wales achieve a sort-of federal position within the UK, something will have to be done both to deliver England-only votes in Parliament and also to devolve power to English cities and counties.

Note, not to ‘regions’. The Blair government’s regional government experiment was killed stone-dead by the voters of the north-east, who rejected regional bodies which offered little more than a right to be consulted by distant Whitehall.     

Subsequently, Greater Manchester and other city regions have developed combined authorities which are negotiating local autonomy. London has made a case for the devolution of all property taxes to the mayor and the boroughs. The counties will surely now assert themselves.

The question of how English sub-national government is treated by any constitutional reforms is complex. The LGA and other interested parties will need to ensure there is a phased movement from hyper-centralisation to an agreed system of local and democratic combined authorities. 

Whitehall will, for sure, attempt to propose non-democratic decentralisation to micro-quangos which would have no control over local taxation.  

Indeed, there will be a big fight against English devolution within central government. The tax-setting and borrowing powers being offered to Scotland offend everything the Treasury holds dear.

Officials will resist giving any such freedoms to English sub-national bodies. Similarly, spending departments, notably health, education and work and pensions, will attempt to stop any of their precious powers being given to cities or counties.  

Radical devolution within England would be a major threat to Whitehall.

There must be a risk that the scale of the constitutional reform required will cause political gridlock at Westminster. If this were to happen, it would provide further evidence of the dysfunctional nature of the system that got the UK into this mess in the first place.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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