A Cornish Assembly or a South West Zone?
As a rule I do not normally seek to take on causes which are assumed to be either hopeless or impossible – particularly where you know very well that you start with the balance of political opinion weighing heavily against you, even amongst the minority who believe that it could be realistic.
However, I feel that I have taken on more than my fair share of these; not a wise move for someone who should be seeking to be an upwardly mobile politician.
When I took up the campaign for a Cornish Assembly this was assumed to be so unrealistic and unachievable that opponents felt that they needed to do little more than respond with a benign smile and a private snigger to dismiss the idea.
But in a recent Parliamentary Written Answer to me, Regions Minister, Nick Raynsford MP, had to admit that the Government had received more responses to the White Paper on Regional Government supporting the case for a Cornish Assembly than had responded from the whole of the rest of the country put together – for or against. The campaign is certainly rolling. Earlier this year, my Cornish Liberal Democrat Parliamentary colleagues (Matthew Taylor, Paul Tyler, Colin Breed) and I delivered over 50,000 signed sheet declarations in support of a Cornish Assembly – this represents more than 10% of the population of Cornwall and a far higher demonstration of popular support than in any of the Government zones.
Contrary to what many may believe, neither my colleagues nor I are getting involved in this campaign merely because we enjoy every opportunity to challenge the kind of tiresome metropolitan prejudices places like Cornwall too often have to endure, though, I have to admit, it is the cause of some private pleasure.
However, what does not give me pleasure is to witness the now routine, resounding disinterest and apathy with which the general populace in the remainder of the Government’s South West zone respond to the prospect of regional devolution. But, perhaps it is because people see a non-existent and synthetic region created for the purposes of bureaucratic convenience that no-one recognises or has any enthusiasm for. And perhaps that’s why in its present form the Government’s policy is undeliverable.
Whereas in Cornwall news about the campaign for a Cornish Assembly is regularly and prominently reported most normal folk in the remainder of the Government’s South West zone appear to demonstrate a level of enthusiasm for that “region” which extends to hardly being able to stifle a yawn at the mere hint of the subject being mentioned.
Some are getting so carried away with this that they genuinely believe that public torpor can be interpreted as enthusiasm to set up directly elected bodies with real decision-making powers has, I concede, proven how wrong I was.
Let me make myself clear, I am an enthusiast for devolution, but a realist that it is unachievable unless offered to places which exist, as opposed to those created for administrative convenience. I also have to admit to being a member of the ‘if we ignore them they’ll probably go away’ brigade, but I hadn’t properly accounted for the speed at which the vacuum left by disinterest is filled by nonsense unless, in the meantime, commonsense prevails.
Indeed, as an enthusiastic decentralist, I often take every opportunity to support the Campaign for the English Regions whenever it comes to the House of Commons to promote itself.
I remember attending one event to, as gently as possible, point out what was bad in an otherwise good cause. I still get the, perhaps correct, impression that my sighting at these events is as welcome as the Taliban arriving.
We know and are delighted that campaigns for directly elected regional assemblies in the North East, Yorkshire and the North West are well underway and news that others campaigns and conventions are proceeding well is very encouraging.
The pressing questions on everyone’s mind is usually about when the assemblies could be set up, what powers we can achieve for them and how they would relate to local government, quangos and so on. So it is rightly all very exciting stuff.
But whether the Evangelists for the Government’s standardised regions are fully astride their high horses on the cusp of history in the making, I have to admit that I feel like the boy who pointed out the Emperor has no clothes. I often say that I don’t intend to be churlish, but…
“What do we do if the Region doesn’t actually exist?”
The question is usually met with stunned incomprehension. To some zealots it is like asking whether we could redefine the boundaries of God.
I have to acknowledge that the good people of Yorkshire are lucky. The Government defined region happens to more or less coincide with a region with its owns recognisable identity and so it is for others – some to a lesser or possibly greater extent.
We do have to ask ourselves whether it is appropriate to destroy a region with a unifying identity (like Cornwall) only to create a synthetic region without one.
In fact, those of us who are concerned about the gathering apathy and low turnouts at election time have a double reason not to give the creation of some of the standardised regions a simple crumb of comfort or encouragement. The pathetically low turnout at some recent elections would surely be eclipsed by reaching new heights of lethargy amongst an unimpressed electorate faced with a bland uniform and characterless region.
Matthew Arnold once said that it is “the desire of a centralised state to render its dominion homogenous” and the fear amongst liberals and democrats is that if the Labour Government delivers regional government in the same obsessive control-freak style it does in so many other policy areas they will do little more than replace the bland uniformity of a centralised state with another form of bland uniformity in those regions which have been created out of Government zones.
If we are to decentralise some powers away from an over-centralised state we should do so to places and regions which actually exist, to territories about which people actually give a damn.
The main challenge against proposals like that coming from Cornwall is that it is “too small”. Cornwall’s population is half a million. The Government’s optimum standardised region is supposed to have a population of about ten times that size.
Perhaps Britain is becoming too insular in its outlook. If we lift our sights above the sometimes narrow horizons of the UK we only need to look at regions both within Europe and elsewhere to see that regions and provinces vary in size. In Liberal Canada provinces like Prince Edward Island (pop. 138,000) and Newfoundland (pop 541,000) all have the same powers as Ontario (pop. 11.5 million).
Where service delivery (such as specialist medical services) require economies of scale or a large critical mass then these are easily overcome by sensible and mature co-operation between provinces.
Indeed, a recently published academic study* by the Constitution Unit of the University College of London confirmed that a Cornish Regional Assembly was “administratively feasible”, it also queried the oft repeated claim that Cornwall would not have sufficient “clout” in the corridors of power.
There are some in Cornwall as well as outside who appear to imply that the campaign for a Cornish Assembly is merely “a Trojan Horse” for narrow separatists and ethnic cleansers. It’s a bit tiresome having to continually emphasise that devolution has a clearly liberal democratic as well as disturbingly nationalist potential edge to it.
It is quite true that Cornwall has a distinct Celtic heritage, separate language and a unique constitutional relationship with the Crown, but I and the rest of the supporters both within the Party and the campaign in Cornwall have always emphasised that it is not about seeking to cut Cornwall off – quite the opposite – it’s about seeking to cut Cornwall into the celebration of diversity.
Cornwall has much to offer if its distinctiveness were to be recognised. It would open up new horizons rather than shut them down.
In fact, the concern many have is that by denying to support Cornwall’s case, we will provide fertile ground for nationalist and separatist causes in Cornwall who are eager for the project to fail in order that they can claim that it’s all part of an Anglo Saxon conspiracy to deny Cornwall its rights!
The latest claim by Ministers is that by giving Cornwall the powers of a Regional Assembly would “lose the benefits of joining up policies that affect a far wider region – such as economic development – under a directly elected body. As the White Paper says, there will be scope for regional assemblies to organise their activities sub-regionally where they think this would be desirable”.
But this presupposes that the creation of a wider zone would add rather than lose the benefits in joining up policies. The example of economic development is interesting because attempts by the SW Regional Development Agency to discourage Cornwall from establishing its own strong and distinctive brand image and to put its weight behind the more diluted and uncertain image of “the South West of England” is a classic example of how the inevitable blandness of a policy of administrative convenience results in worse rather than better outcomes.
The creation of a wider area would lose the benefits of the economic development advantages of Cornwall trading on its distinctiveness – part of which would be its unique size! Indeed we could ask what strictly strategic benefit the RDA – indeed any RDA – has achieved so far.
There is also an assumption in the Government’s approach which suggests that their own defined boundaries present no or little cross-boundary or border issues with regard to strategic transport and other policies. In order to improve strategic transport links into Cornwall we don’t just need to negotiate co-operative arrangements with our neighbours in the Government’s South West zone, but in other parts of the country as well. Road, rail, air and sea links don’t begin and end in an area bordered by Bournemouth, Swindon and Gloucester.
It is inevitable that these issues would need to be addressed through processes of cross border co-operation and pan-regional strategic dialogue.
Further, we would have to question whether proposed sub-regional arrangements would result in greater rather than less internal conflict.
If as a country we really do want to devolve decision-making powers to regional tiers of government, then those who seek to do it must not find themselves hooked on the Government’s rather intolerant control-freak agenda and recognise that if devolution can only happen where there is clear public support, then it is best for the Government not to resist this.
Andrew George MP 25th October 2002
* ‘The Cornish Question: Devolution for the South-West Region’ by Mark Sandford – October 2002