18th September 2014. A country whipped up in election fever votes in a referendum which could see the break-up of a 300 year union. An unprecedented percentage – 84.6% – turn out to vote – the highest number for a referendum since universal suffrage was introduced. As the heads clear the next morning, the UK wakes up to find that the ‘no’s’ have it with 55.3% of the vote share. A ‘yes’ campaign, which canvassed so brilliantly for support that a mere week before the vote it seemed too close to call, feels understandably deflated. However, what the ‘yes’ campaign may not realise quite yet on the morning of the 19th September 2014, is that they have just pushed the first domino in a chain of devolution demands. They are the first of a new wave to clamour to be cast off from the shores of Westminster into an unknown, but exciting, more ‘local’ future.
Only six months later and the dominos are continuing to fall, picking up pace. Almost all major cities in the UK are now calling for greater powers over their economies, NHS, education and legislature. From Birmingham, which has proposed a ‘triple devolution model of local government’, to the Yorkshire Devolution Movement, campaigning to secure a directly elected regional assembly, the force at which regional politics is advancing is showing no signs of stalling.
It is important to point out that calls for devolution in parts of the UK, its regions and cities, did not spring up on the eve of the Scottish referendum. Since Gladstone’s first attempt in the 1880s at devolution, it is a matter that has popped up repeatedly in different governments – the Speaker’s Conference on Devolution in 1919, Lloyd George’s Government of Ireland act in 1920 and Labour’s failed attempt in the 1970s. And then in 2010, the newly instated coalition government agreed to begin devolving more powers to communities, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg saying that “the time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today.” This led to the Localism Act 2011 including changes such as abolishing the Standards Board (the central body regulating each local authority standard committee), introducing directly elected mayors, allowing greater local powers over business rates and giving London greater power over housing investments. Especially since 2012, the clamour for localism has been growing – the same year as the Scotland Act which devolved further powers to the country.
In the last two days before the Scottish vote, and with the prospect of a Scotland-free UK becoming a serious reality, Westminster’s political heavyweights pledged to devolve extensive new powers to the Scottish parliament if they remained part of the UK. Although some saw this as a last-ditch attempt to keep Scotland in the union, this opened the door for other parts of the country to seriously re-think their position and begin demanding something similar to what Scotland had been promised. This is therefore what is different about the devolution situation post-Scottish referendum – the very fact that these demands can suddenly become a reality, rather than just another political pipe dream. The consequences of this, particularly for Scotland, could be startling. Even without independence, the outcome of this General Election will most likely see SNP politicians sweep the board across the country (some saying up to 50 of the 59 Scottish constituencies), kicking out Labour in traditionally safe seats. Even if Labour does not look to form a coalition with the SNP, the Scottish party’s influence will be keenly felt in Westminster. Labour continues to rule out a ‘looser’ relationship with the SNP post-election – a move they say would in theory disenfranchise Scottish MPs.
What is interesting about this developing situation (and something that could be replicated in the future) is Nicola Sturgeon speaking to reassure English voters. Scotland and Wales are used to Westminster politicians wooing them for votes, but not English voters being directly consulted by Scottish or Welsh politicians. One repercussion of what was seemingly a move for more devolution, and indeed independence entirely, could actually lead to the union coming closer together as parties and politicians across the board have to work more closely with not just each other, but voters also. It shows the reach of local politics, whether in West Lothian or the West Midlands, spans far beyond the boundaries of the local authority and can affect people on the other end of the country, with a real impact on national politics.
There has never been a more exciting or important time for local politics. Devolution is playing a key role in the evolution of not just local government, but how our country runs as a whole. Over the following weeks the positives and potential pitfalls in devolving more and more power to the regions will be critically analysed, whilst what the future shape of the UK could look like will be discussed. In this brave new world of politics – it really is all about the local.