Rebecca McQuillan: The real threat to independence that could save the Union

MICHAEL Gove’s been writing love letters. He’s finally published the long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper, a Valentine’s card to Red Wall voters that’s supposed to keep them feeling warm and fuzzy about the Tories.

Unfortunately, it felt like a love letter Boris Johnson had written – full of gushing promises you’d be very unwise to take on face value.

But it did have a certain significance for the union between Scotland and England. Amid all the breathless vision stuff about turning places like Sunderland and Bolton into the bestest places in the world to live ever, Mr Gove talked of greater devolution to the English regions – and this matters. Why? Because it reflects a growing appetite in England for stronger regions. Stronger English regions make federalism a viable option for the UK, creating a potentially popular alternative to independence.

The problem is that baby steps towards greater autonomy for individual counties and cities, as Mr Gove is offering, will lead to a messy and incoherent whole, when what’s needed is a proper reimagining of the way the UK is governed. That has to include the abolition of the woefully outdated House of Lords in favour of a Senate of the Nations and Regions, and directly elected and accountable assemblies for any region that wants one.

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That model would rebalance England to an unprecedented degree and change the game when it came to options for the UK’s future.

The usual rejoinder to this is that English voters have to want it; you can’t impose greater autonomy on the English regions. Well, it’s true that for a long time they didn’t seem to want it but that is changing before our eyes. Andy Burnham, Steve Rotherham and others, as energetic advocates for their areas, have created mayor envy in other, undevolved parts of England. Momentum is building. And as we know in Scotland, once voters get a taste for more local decision-making, they tend to want more of it.

The implications for the Scottish debate are obvious. If there is one thing that has become increasingly clear over the last eight years, it’s that the choice between independence and the status quo is a false dichotomy.

There is a great proliferation of constitutional options, even just under the broad heading of “independence”. Independence supporters themselves are split over how close relations should be with a post-Brexit Europe and a UK that’s no longer in the EU, over currency, the monarchy and tackling debt. The constitutional options are on a continuum, with isolation at one end and total integration at the other. “Independence” and “federalism” come in a range of guises in between.

Politicians who insist on trying to force a binary choice onto the Scottish people are therefore distorting the debate. There is an alternative to independence in federalism, with more powerful English regions counterbalancing the might of London and a reformed UK parliament reflecting the concerns of the nations and regions. Radical federalism is not far removed from softer forms of independence.

The question is whether the UK government, with its past instinct for centralisation, is finally seeing the value in developing this third option.

The Levelling Up White Paper offers a nod in that direction, though it should be treated with caution. It notes, for instance, that the UK is highly centralised compared to other OECD countries and there’s a need to “widen, deepen and simplify devolution”. Even in areas of England which have seen devolution “local leaders have comparatively limited powers”, it declares, with the mayors of New York and Paris having much greater clout as well as more revenue-raising powers.

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“By 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement,” promises Mr Gove. With talk like that, he’s in danger of sounding enthusiastic.

But his concrete offer is less ambitious than this makes it sound. What he’s really talking about are more mayors for counties and cities.

That would be significant, but not a game-changer in itself. At the moment, mayors are directly elected but their teams are not. For instance, Andy Burnham’s cabinet of 10 are the leaders of the 10 local councils in greater Manchester.

In London, by contrast, the 25 members of the London Assembly are directly elected. Are we on the cusp of seeing small, directly elected regional authorities spring up all over England? There is no indication of that.

And it would be surprising if we were. After all, as the Institute for Government notes in a paper this week, this is a government that has shown a willingness to “override the devolved institutions in areas of their own responsibility” – a government, in other words, that likes to assert its primacy – which seems to jar with ideas of muscular devolution for the English regions.

But that’s what’s needed. The constitutional monolith that is England does need to be broken up a bit, or inevitably, the London government will always dominate.

An English parliament would be sensible, but that would not solve the problem.

Decentralising power in England is key. Having regional assemblies with clout would be the best way to make UK federalism work.

The UK Government plans to let the English regions devolve at different speeds and in different ways, according to what local people want. That is the right thing to do, but you are left wondering if it’s also a convenient way for a government which likes to hoard power to avoid passing too much more of it down the chain too quickly.

There is a danger that all this talk of devolution within England is just a superficial sop to keep Red Wall voters onside, rather a sign of genuine commitment to change the way the UK is run.

It would be a lost opportunity if that were true.

The polls, for years now, have shown the Scottish population more or less evenly split over the independence question. This was confirmed by last May’s Scottish election and even by the latest two polls this month, which show a dead heat between Yes and No.

Scottish politics sometimes seems condemned to this attrition, but that’s only true if the third way option continues to be ignored.

The Scottish Government frequently makes common cause with Wales; well in future it could find fresh allies in the north-east, north-west and midlands of England, assuming Scottish ministers did not consider it beneath them to parly with mere regions. The ongoing dominance of London and Whitehall is no longer a given.

But the UK government can’t just play at this. Do they want to reinvigorate the UK or don’t they? It’s time to decide.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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