Regionalisation by stealth?

Gordon Brown

One of the joys of writing a blog is the enquiries that come in. Here is one such:

“I don’t understand how you can agree with Gordon Brown to stealthily foist a federal EU state upon the English and transpose it into convenient regions. We have never had an opportunity to openly debate the issue and vote on it. It is too serious an issue to leave to parliament, who are obliged to follow the will of the people, not their personal will or the will of the European Union. This entire process going on with all three parties politically afraid and the BBC avoiding any discussion if at all possible and drowning the public with dull, lowbrow programs, only distracts from the major changes that are occurring. You must not take advantage of the complacency and dullness of English people who go about their business. They will awaken one of these days, perhaps soon, and all of you will be in big trouble for having pretended virtue when you intend a slow motion, stultifying putsch. Winston Churchill would have been aghast at your plans. Please explain why you don’t intend to push for a referendum for the English people?”

It can’t be often that Gordon Brown gets criticised for being too pro-European. Of all the people who have kept Britain from joining the euro, for example, he must be just about top of the list. I don’t see how the progress of European integration can be described as stealthy, either. The EU is founded on treaties that have been ratified in parliament, and its institutions and policies are quite widely publicised. Are newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail really conspiring to keep silent about the EU?

On the development of regional government in England, that is a separate and unconnected issue. The constitutional arrangements of each member state are a matter for it and it alone. After all, no-one complains that the EU is trying to break up Poland, do they.

I agree that there ought to be a far-reaching debate about the future of the British constitution, rather than the piecemeal changes that we have seen over the past few years. Changes here to be followed by changes there lead to an imbalance over all: the debate about independence in Scotland is an example of that, while hostility to the Barnett formula is another. The British constitution needs to be looked at in a comprehensive manner, not a partial one.

I happen to think that regional government for England makes sense. Many of the decision-making powers are already exercised at regional level, but by bureaucrats accountable to other bureaucrats. I would prefer regional decisions to be taken by elected politicians accountable to the electorate.

Putting the final constitutional settlement to a referendum would be an interesting move: it fits strongly with the European tradition of confirming fundamental political change, as opposed to the British practice of parliamentary democracy. It is nice to see that there are some things even Eurosceptics can learn from our neighbours. It occurs to me, though, that perhaps you mean a referendum on EU membership, in which case I wonder why the English are the only people to be asked to vote. The assumption that “the English people” and “the British people” are one and the same has got the former into a lot of trouble down the ages.

On the question of whether there should be a referendum in Britain on Europe as a whole, here is what we wrote in 2007:

You open with Gordon Brown and conclude with Winston Churchill; so will I. Remember that Winston Churchill himself was an advocate of English regional government, as well as, more famously, being one of the leading figures behind of the idea of a united Europe in the aftermath of the second world war.

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