Amongst people I spoke to in the towns and villages of Northumberland last week, I could feel the sense of relief that Scotland had voted no to independence. And it was a decisive vote, confounding expectations that it would be very close.
In the Borders, not surprisingly, it was two-to-one against. Fears of different currencies, threats to access to public services across the border and the unnecessary intrusion of an international frontier in the middle of our daily lives worried people on both sides of the border.
But what now? For Scotland, it is relatively clear. All three party leaders promised a fast track to increase the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament, a policy to which Liberal Democrats were already committed, and that promise must be kept. The leaders went further, and appeared to commit themselves to continuing the discredited Barnett formula, which decides how much Scotland gets in cash from UK taxation. I will come back to that subject in a moment.
What about England? Here the picture is much less clear. There is wide recognition that too much power in England is concentrated at the centre, at the expense of regions like the North East and the South West. London has lots of decision-making power vested in the elected Mayor and the London Assembly, but the rest of England is run from Whitehall.
Liberal Democrats have been complaining about this for years and trying unsuccessfully to deal with it through the proposal for a regional assembly. The version of it put forward by the previous Labour Government was very weak and got the thumbs down from North East voters in a referendum. The present Coalition Government has made some progress in devolving powers instead to combined local authorities. They started with Greater Manchester and are progressing plans for the combined authority which brings together Tyneside, Northumberland and Durham for strategic functions.
The Conservatives prefer the idea of building on local authorities because they have a rather irrational hatred of the idea of regions, and a more rational concern that some parts of the country do not have the regional identity which is found in the North East and the North West. So it made sense for the Coalition Government to use local government as the building block, and a real start has been made. My view is that we should continue and speed up this process – reviving the regional assembly proposal at this point will, I think, not get us the rapid progress we need.
But there is a big snag. Every time power has been devolved to assemblies around the UK, in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, Parliament has insisted that a proportional system of voting is used. Why? Because otherwise you get one-party dominance and under-representation of minority and rural interests. The new combined local authorities have this problem in spades – the combined authority for our area is completely controlled and dominated by the Labour Party from urban areas. These are the people who are imposing huge transport charges on 16-year-olds in Alnwick, Scots Gap and Berwick areas who need to travel long distances to school or college. The smaller and rural communities get squeezed out if one party and one type of area has a huge and dominating majority, and on the combined authorities it is made worse by the fact that at present every local council leader on the leadership body is from the same party.
Transfer of power to areas or regions has to be on the basis that it is exercised by more representative institutions which can build consensus. That principle applied to Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland, so it should apply to England too.
Then there are two further problems. One is the issue of English votes for English laws. It is not a simple issue, but there is an obvious question mark over the fact that laws and policy decisions about the NHS, schools and transport in England are made with the involvement of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs in whose constituencies these matters are decided by devolved governments.
The ultimate logic is that you either devolve a great deal more power to regions or you have a completely federal system, like the USA, with an English government and English parliament running England, leaving Whitehall and Westminster to deal with foreign affairs, defence and other things which remain the same across the UK. Most people think that it is a step too far in terms of both cost and the fact that England itself is too big to manage the sort of powers that Wales and London have.
An English Parliament would be just as distant as Westminster for the North East. So we will have to settle for a compromise, and that is likely to involve restricting the role of MPs from non-English constituencies when Westminster resolves issues which are purely English. This is uncomfortable for the Labour Party, which usually relies on around 40 or 50 MPs from Scotland and Wales to give it the majority to form a government.
You could have a Labour UK government which had no majority to carry through its policies on health, education or transport. But why should it have the power to force decisions on the English for which England had not voted?
Then there is the Barnett formula. I know Joel Barnett well – a cheery Labour Treasury Secretary who, decades ago, devised a formula which he admits was never intended to be a formula, and was only intended to get him through a couple of years of difficult spending negotiations. It guarantees to Scotland a fixed share of UK total public spending. This gives Scotland around 20 per cent more per head than England. In addition, every time a decision is made to increase spending in England, Scotland automatically gets an extra lump of money, regardless of need.
The three party leaders were so worried about the Scottish vote and the very real danger posed by a break-up of the UK that they gave a commitment to continue the Barnett formula. I understand why they did it, but it is not a rational policy. Scotland should get the power to raise most of its income through taxation in Scotland, and if it wants to spend more it should have to persuade Scottish voters of the case for doing so.
We have to think things through and not create a bigger mess than we already have. But opportunities to push the North East case do not come by very often. The devolution bus could leave with us still at the bus stop if we are not careful.