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The North has done us all a favour

Matthew Parris

THE FIRST lesson to be learnt from Thursday’s defeat for proposals for a North East regional assembly is that if you want to win a referendum in England, make sure the right answer is “no”. The English populace loves saying “no”. Engraved in my childhood memory is the victorious referendum campaign of Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front party that led to his regime’s unilateral declaration of independence from Britain 39 years ago. The referendum question was whether or not to accept British proposals for (among other things, and ultimately) black participation in government. Mr Smith’s campaign slogan was simple. Big posters, purple on white, proclaimed it in block capitals on every lamppost. “Stand Firm — Vote No.” Voting “yes”, it was insinuated, would be giving in. So white Rhodesia voted “no”.

The referendum slogan in the North East that would best have suited our Government would have included the following preamble: “Plans for a north eastern regional assembly will go ahead only if you are not content with the present system of local government.” The referendum question would have been: “Do you wish to keep the present system of local government?” The campaign posters should have read “Sweep it Away — Vote No”.

I cannot guarantee that by such means the vote would have been won, but it would have been a great deal closer than the pitiful 7-2 margin by which the referendum was lost.

On the same reasoning, Tony Blair’s fabled 2006 national referendum on a new European constitution (an event we should believe when we see it) will from that viewpoint best be fought by insinuating that the real question is whether the British people want to join the Tories in picking a huge scrap with the rest of Europe. Believe me, that is how the Prime Minister will be spinning this one, and he has started already.

As for the North East, John Prescott’s plans will now be unceremoniously dropped.

There is something worryingly capricious about committing an entire party, the whole apparatus of state, and the loyal efforts of all your regional backbench MPs, to a proposal with profound constitutional implications, just to get a tiresome colleague out of your hair . . . but why waste our breath saying so? It has become this column’s familiar refrain that life is too short to deconstruct the mental processes of the Prime Minister. “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” sings the Mother Superior in The Sound of Music. “How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” and the same may be said of Mr Blair’s interior life. How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? A flippertyjibbet, a will-o’the-wisp, a clown? Goldfish, as they circle their bowls, are said to have so short a memory-span that by the time one circuit is completed they have no recollection of ever having been there before. By this time next week Mr Blair will have forgotten all about regional government, let alone travelling to the North East to campaign for it.

But in other minds there was a deep reason for these proposals, and corresponding proposals for regional authorities in the North West, and in Yorkshire and Humberside. This had less to do with what it is now fashionable to call “good governance”, than with a constitutional problem that has nagged modern British politics like a dental cavity that hurts not quite badly enough to drive you to the dentist, yet too much to put permanently from your mind.

Yes, groaning reader, here we go again — and here we shall be returning repeatedly now that English regional assemblies are off the radar: to that hoary old perennial, the West Lothian question.

Since the 1970s when Tam Dalyell, the present Father of the House and then-MP for West Lothian, first discovered it, this horror has come back to haunt us in a series of incarnations. The latest (now that we have a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly) runs something like this: Why do the MPs whom the Scots send to Westminster have a vote in the government of England and Wales, when English and Welsh MPs have no vote in the government of Scotland (or that part of Scottish government devolved to the Scottish Parliament)? To give a practical example: Scottish Westminster MPs can join a vote to close schools or hospitals in England, but English MPs have no vote on the NHS north of the border.

There is no answer. The question would vanish if English MPs could debate and vote in “English-only” sessions at Westminster, whenever the matter under consideration related to the governance of England alone. But senior politicians are profoundly wary of the idea, for a variety of reasons. These include a fear of fanning the embers of an English sense of national identify (have you noticed that the English Tourist Board has quietly been abolished?) but they go wider than that.

Scotland is already vastly over-represented at Westminster. Take English legislation away from Scots MPs and they fear an English-driven campaign to slash their numbers further even than present proposals. The Scottish Westminster MP would become a beast whose habitat was under pressure on all sides: at home the Edinburgh Parliament would have made successful raids on his territory; down in London, English MPs would be stockading their own legislative homeland against him.

And, given that so overwhelming a proportion of the British State’s revenue and domestic spending relates to England alone, how appropriate would it be for Scots MPs to occupy the highest offices — Chancellor, Home Secretary, Prime Minister? All these are questions that most mainstream politicians in recent British history have preferred to avoid, or fudge.

Devolution to the English regions was intended to be the mother of all such fudges. This was to be the “answer” to the West Lothian question. It had a splendid apparent simplicity. “Wales has its Assembly, Scotland has its Parliament, and you English will have your elected regional assemblies” was to be the refrain. It would have sounded like a knockdown response.

Of course it would have borne no scrutiny. The asymmetry between the powers of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff is already so ragged that you will have noticed that I have glossed over the issue. In no sense would the English regional assemblies have corresponded to either. But to those who protested, there would always have been the reply: “Indeed, but the English assemblies are work in progress; in time their powers may be augmented, if that is what the English wish”. That was precisely the argument mounted in favour of the feeble proposals which the North East has just thrown out.

Likewise, the objection that some parts of England had regional government while others did not, was to have been answered with the assurance that — as and when — the idea could spread more widely across England. Thus was autonomy extended to Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain, and then, region by region (and with lesser powers, and to increasingly fanciful concepts of “region”) to other parts of the country. In England as in Spain, the more of the country that has regional status already, the greater the pressure on the residue to get it too — until finally, scrapping like cats in a sack, Devon and Cornwall were to be delivered into an authority known as the West Country, while we in North Derbyshire were to be told we had something to do with Boston, Lincolnshire.

That was the road down which we English were supposed to start, this week. There was more than a whiff of divide-and-rule about it. North-Easterners were ripe (it was thought) for being picked off first. The whole of England owes them its gratitude for declining the invitation.