With only a few days to go until the much anticipated Scottish Independence referendum, the outcome is thought to remain very much in the balance, which is perhaps surprising, given the overwhelming amount of both positive and negative propaganda that has been hurled at the Scottish electorate by the respective YES and NO camps over the past couple of weeks. Depending on which side they choose to believe, by next weekend Scots will either be living in a Scottish Nationalist utopia, or an economically bankrupt state, in a Scotland that has finally chosen to throw off the oppressive shackles of English imperialism, or a country that has finally seen the value of remaining within an economic and political union that has helped to change and shape the world we all live in today.
In a sense, the entire Scottish Independence debate could surely be boiled down to a simple choice being made between heart and head, between what the Scots know they represent, as part of a modern United Kingdom, as opposed to what they might aspire to be outside of it. Economic scare-mongering aside, there is little doubt that an independent Scotland could survive and perhaps indeed even thrive outside of the United kingdom, but the question still remains, are the Scottish people brave enough, or aspirational enough to take that huge leap of faith into the unknown; that the cause of national independence represents or calls for? No doubt, we'll all just have to wait and see what happens next Thursday, when the population of Scotland finally decide whether it's their heads or their hearts that will ultimately guide them into making a choice over their futures?
Regardless of what happens in Scotland this coming Thursday though, the ramifications of the Scottish Independence debate are going to be huge, if only in terms of how Britain, the United Kingdom, with or without Scotland, is going to be governed in the future; that fact is inevitable! If nothing else, the debate surrounding Scotland's future status, as with those of Wales and Northern Ireland, has simply helped to expose the underlying discrepancies and inequalities felt by the largest partner in the union, England. Clearly it cannot be right that the biggest geographical, economic and social entity in our 300-year-old union is the only part of the United Kingdom that doesn't have its own individual political representative body, whilst the other three countries do, that is a wholly ridiculous state of affairs!
However, through the creation of an entirely English legislative body, along with the existence of the three already devolved regional parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the federalisation of the United Kingdom, already begun in part, would then be complete. Although the idea of regional assemblies, in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would doubtless solve the rancour surrounding issues like the "West Lothian Question", the ability of outside non-English MP's being able to vote on what are English only issues, ultimately the existence of regional assemblies not only represents a fracturing of national governance, but also increases the likelihood of further regionalisation and federalisation in the future.
Only this week, in a direct response to the Scottish Independence debate we have seen Nick Clegg publicly promote the idea of further devolution, not only to the four regions of the United Kingdom, but also to various large cities and metropolitan areas scattered around the country. So the possibility exists that not only will we see further powers being handed down to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, not only the creation of an England only assembly, but also the creation of a handful of economically powerful city states, which will have the powers to put their own local interests above those of the rest of the country. Even though the initial suggestion has only been to hand control of local business rates, taxes and a share of national income tax over to local authority control, it seems almost inevitable that over time increasing amounts of local revenue raising and spending powers will be subcontracted to the various city councils and local authorities, if only to match those powers currently being granted to the likes of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland regional administrations.
One could only imagine what the overall national impact would be if the likes of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, etc. etc. all started to safeguard and protect their own local economies, over and above the interests of other neighbouring city states. London is already reported to be creating ten times as many jobs as anywhere else in the United Kingdom, such is its ability to suck talent from other regions of the UK, at a direct human and economic cost to the likes of Scotland, Wales, the North East, the North West, the Midlands, etc. With other powerful city states given the powers to compete with London, would we then start to see a series of bidding wars begin between such regional centres, as each attempted to attract businesses from one to the other? And what happens to those areas of the UK that don't currently have such economically powerful city states within their regional boundaries? Would they be left to wither and die? Would their indigenous workforce be systematically drawn off to work within the nearest regional powerhouse, creating a new London-type metropolis within the North East, North West, or Wales, etc?
And if this new devolution of powers to the regions inadvertently or deliberately creates a series of competing British federalised states, a new, modern day version of the historic Anglo Saxon "heptarchy" (the seven petty kingdoms), where would a unified Britain stand then? A certain logic would also tend to suggest that a politically powerful, highly competitive and economically independent London, Manchester, Liverpool, Scotland, Wales, etc. might then at some point seek to protect its own markets, resources, infrastructure and trade routes, either through a series of locally binding by-laws, a city police force, or even heaven forbid, a locally raised city defence force (ie: a militia or an army).
Rather than devolved powers being a forward step in the development of our country, there is an argument to suggest otherwise; that devolving powers to the regions, to powerful cities is a backward step, something that diminishes our unity, rather than increases it. After all, it wasn't that long ago that towns and cities throughout England reserved the right to set their own by-laws, set their own trading tariffs and to decide who could and couldn't live or work within their city boundaries. Many of these same towns and cities used to refuse to take responsibility for their sick, their elderly or the unemployed, often by refusing them access to their communities, or by shipping them back to the towns and cities where they were born. How long do you imagine it would be before one of these new devolved regions, or city states would start finding ways to exclude those citizens it considered to be uneconomic, or a drain on their resources? How long would it be, before over time, one or other devolved region or city state decided that they didn't want to provide welfare benefits, or free healthcare, or housing, or education to their less worthwhile citizens?
How long will it be before our city states like London start to introduce local ordinances to control peoples access to specific parts of the city itself, gated communities if you will; where unless you're employed there, or live there, you can't go there? After all, we have had numerous cases already of various London boroughs exiling their residents to other faraway parts of the country, ostensibly because it's cheaper to house them there than it is in London itself. If such things are happening today, then just how long will it be before these same London authorities choose to systematically pick and choose who they want to live in the city, basing their decisions on a person's race, religion, income or employment status? None of us can say it cannot happen, because in a sense it already does!
Although such suggestions and potential outcomes might seem to be fanciful or highly unlikely; and even though administrative centralisation is often problematic and cumbersome, if unity brings strength, then division will almost inevitably bring with it inherent weakness. A single overarching political system, such as we have in the UK may not be perfect, but at the very least it offers fairness, uniformity and a guarantee of sorts that everyone can and will be treated equally. Were there a convincing case to be made that local politicians or business leaders were any more sensitive to peoples needs than national politicians are, then the actual basis for devolving more powers to the regions or individual cities might well be justified, but as Rotherham and any number of other scandals have proved beyond question, local representatives are just as good and just as bad as their national counterparts when it comes to matters of personal judgement.
Rather than empowering local people, I tend to take the view that devolution of powers to the regions is simply an attempt by national politicians to abandon their own responsibility for managing the country, casting blame from themselves to other local representatives, or worse still, to the people themselves, even though the electorate will still have very little influence over the actual outcomes. Also, by actively encouraging the fracturing of our generally centralised government structures, into what is fundamentally a more federalised and regional nation, people like Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband are putting the very future of our country at stake. The political leaderships of both Wales and Scotland have already openly declared that they favour remaining in the European Union regardless of any changes that may or may not be offered in the future. How would that work, if certain regions of the UK wanted to remain within the EU, whilst others wanted to leave? It would be a absurd situation if half the country's regions wanted to remain in the EU, whilst the other half wanted to leave, or if a metropolitan area wanted to stay, whilst the surrounding countryside wanted to go. Centralised government leads to centralised planning and centralised strategies, which if conducted properly offer a greater prospect of majority support by the peoples of the United Kingdom.
History has proved that localism, tribalism, regionalism, call it what you will, doesn't work for the majority, which is why most modern countries have tended towards greater centralisation, rather than less. The fact that increased central government within the United Kingdom itself doesn't and hasn't always worked thus far, probably says more about our current political system than it does about having a centralised strategy per se'.
The fact that successive governments of all political stripes have deliberately chosen to benefit certain areas, whilst at the same time acted to the detriment of others, has probably had more to do with specific political sentiment that any other wider socio-economic considerations. The fact that London, has gained significantly from being the location for virtually every central government office in the country has undoubtedly resulted from choices being made by specific politicians, as has the fact that thousands of businesses have subsequently chosen to locate their corporate headquarters close to the seat of government, in London. The point is that even if certain powers are now devolved to the regions, that in itself isn't going to prevent national politicians making decisions based on their own narrow party political interests, it simply allows them to blame other people for their personal failure to spread the nation's wealth and prosperity to every corner of the country.
Regardless of how much limited power is devolved down to the regions by this or any other government, the likelihood is that a future Labour administration would still favour its own traditional regional heartlands, when it came to extra financial investment; and the same would undoubtedly be true for the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and any other major political party that was in a position to do so. The failure of our present political system is not that power needs to be devolved to be closer to the people, but that politicians need to take more notice of what the electorate, the people, want and expect from them, as their elected representatives. Offering the electorate a say on local planning applications, or business rates, or local services is all very well, but is a pretty pointless exercise if at the same time these same national politicians ignore the peoples wishes when it comes to major issues like welfare, defence, the NHS or our continued membership of the European Union. Allowing the British people the power to establish rather meaningless and potentially damaging petty kingdoms and city states in their particular area of the country is not a solution for the many problems that affect our country, but perhaps ridding ourselves of the crooks and the incompetents who suggest such a plan of action might prove to be far more effective in the long run?