Brilliant! The Western Morning News was swooning with excitement on its front page earlier this week over the news that two parliamentarians – Paul Tyler in the Lords and Nick Harvey in the Commons – have produced a pamphlet on devolution to the English regions. Published by CentreForum, this takes the form of a dialogue between the two.
Although supposedly about devolution to England, the pair do mention Cornwall. And joy unbound; they agree that a Cornish Assembly is a GOOD IDEA. It should be included alongside the 20 or so regional assemblies they envisage in England. Moreover, these assemblies should also have the powers currently enjoyed by the Welsh Assembly.
Paul Tyler is a little more enthusiastic about a Cornish Assembly than Nick Harvey. Tyler points out that existing plans of an ‘English Devolution [sic] Enabling Act’ recognise that devolution should be ‘available to Cornwall (recognising its distinct language, history and culture)’, as well as to London and any groups of local authorities with populations of at least a million (p.9). Nick Harvey is rather more grudging. Nevertheless, for him too, what he calls, somewhat patronisingly, ‘Cornwall’s idiosyncrasies’ make a ‘case for a very small assembly there’. Tiny even. He also goes on to contradict himself by stating he’s ‘more than ready to see an assembly covering our neighbouring counties’ (p.20). As MP for North Devon this looks suspiciously like a proposal for Devonwall.
However, the pamphlet leaves a number of other questions hanging in the air. First, it’s not clear whether a Cornish Assembly would be in addition to local government or a replacement for it. Harvey thinks there may ‘not even be a need for a local authority tier’ in some regions and explicitly links this observation to Cornwall (p.14). Tyler also alarmingly says that ‘in Cornwall, the unitary authority could simply become a more powerful Assembly’ (p.28).
It’s difficult to see anything better guaranteed to destroy support for a Cornish Assembly than linking it with a thoroughly discredited Cornwall Council that has abysmally failed to protect Cornwall and its communities since 2009. In fact, if we couple this with uncertainties about the size of the proposed assembly, we could become a lot more cynical. Indeed, we might view it as merely another phase in the neo-liberal project to diminish democracy. As more and more decisions are out-sourced to the private sector and centrally accountable quangos, a predictable and tiresome cry is regularly heard – why do we need so many elected councillors? Tyler feeds this by pointing to Scotland, where the 129 MSPs legislate in the Scottish Parliament. On a similar basis, Cornwall would need just 14 assembly members.
So if, as Harvey suggests, there’s no need for local government in Cornwall, we could end up with a truncated Assembly of just 15 to 20 elected members, down from around 330 councillors before the disastrous introduction of the unitary authority in 2009. That change, imposed against local wishes by Lib Dems in Truro and Labour in London, effectively slashed democratic electoral participation in local government in Cornwall to a pathetic once every four years. A streamlined Assembly, with insufficient members to provide any meaningful opposition to an all-powerful executive, becomes the next step in removing the last vestiges of democratic oversight from the system.
And then there’s another fairly major problem with this pamphlet. Tyler and Harvey are Liberal Democrats. So let’s examine that party’s record of action rather then just rely on their words.
On page 29 Tyler mentions ‘electoral reform in local government’ and writes approvingly of the single transferable vote system used for local elections in Scotland. But, much as they might like us to forget it, the Lib Dems have been in power for five years. They’ve had plenty of opportunity to introduce proportional representation in local government but blew it. They could for example have demanded electoral reform in local government as the price for participation in the coalition. However, they didn’t, seduced by the half-baked promise of a referendum on the alternative vote, a measure patently designed to benefit themselves!
Even that was given in return for supporting the Tories’ Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, or Constituency Gerrymandering and Devonwall Bill. For, in pursuit of equal sized constituencies, this legislation institutionalised a cross-Tamar parliamentary constituency. At a stroke this would have destroyed Cornwall’s political integrity and undone all the campaigning for a Cornish Assembly by treating Cornwall as a bog-standard English county.
A chance appeared to amend this Bill and respect Cornwall’s border in an amendment debated on November 1st, 2010. Sadly, this was defeated by 315 votes to 257. While all six Cornish MPs didn’t dare not support the amendment, only a measly seven other Lib Dems followed suit. A large majority – 41 – voted with the Tories and against giving Cornwall special treatment. That group of 41 included the MP for North Devon, Nick Harvey. Thus was the Liberal Democrat verdict on a millennium of Cornish history.
A day after that vote, on the third reading of the Bill, even the Cornish Lib Dem MPs quietly voted for erasing Cornwall’s political integrity. Gilbert and Rogerson both tamely trooped through the lobby to vote for a Devonwall constituency while only Andrew George abstained (by voting both for and against).
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act is now on the statute book and was only blocked because of Clegg’s manoeuvring on other issues. Are the Lib Dems proposing to repeal it if they are a part of a future government?
Unfortunately, the vacillating cant and humbug displayed by Lib Dem MPs in 2010 over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill and their failure to back Cornish distinctiveness mean that any promises they make about devolving power to Cornwall have to be treated with extreme caution. Their past actions must speak louder than any of their words. Indeed, those actions seem to suggest that the prospect of devolution depends on ridding parliament of these two-faced drones first. Or at least reducing their MPs to the former numbers of the 1950s, when they could fit into a taxi, before looking elsewhere for any genuine prospect of top-down devolution to Cornwall and its communities.