Spain's model of "asymmetrical devolution" may not be very encouraging for those who want devolution to come to a rest.by John Lloyd / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
Spanish leap-frog Let the leap-frogging begin. Following the Scots and Welsh elections, Britain joins the list of states with vigorous regional competition for status and resources. In the end, perhaps this is no bad thing; but present experience indicates that these competitions are difficult to manage, and can be bitter. Spain is often approvingly cited by supporters of Britain’s famously “asymmetrical” devolution-Scotland gets a parliament, Wales and Northern Ireland get mere assemblies, and England gets nothing. Lopsidedness works in Spain, they say, why not here, too? No need for logical blueprints, let us wallow in the messiness of what history has bequeathed to us. The trouble is that Spain also provides succour to the other camp: those who warned that asymmetry would not work. For Spain is now home to the purest form of regional competition in Europe, with the status and privileges of the regions in constant flux. When a privilege is granted or a concession made to, say, Catalonia, then all want it; when all have it, Catalonia wants to preserve its differential. It is a state of affairs familiar to any trade unionist or industrial relations manager, whose experience stretches back to the wage deals of the 1970s. There had to be different strokes for the different British folks; but differences will become an issue. When Wales gets its assembly and Scotland its parliament, they will no longer compete over national sentiment-on which, in any case, Wales seemed happy enough to lose to Scotland-but over what concessions can be secured from London. Plaid Cymru, now with the subtitle “The Party of Wales” for those frightened by the Welsh language, has ceased to be an overtly nationalist party. In turning itself into a political force throughout Wales, it will gradually become a leftish regional party that claims it can get more out of London than Labour, hog-tied as the latter is to the Treasury line. This strategy, which the SNP shows signs of imitating as nationalist sentiment in Scotland seems to ebb, is arguably worse than a frank expression of nationalism. It is certainly less honest. More than that, it is corrosive. The first issue which came up in the coalition talks between the Scottish Labour and Liberal Democratic parties was just such an issue-the claim that Scots students should be relieved of the obligation to pay university tuition fees. If won (negotiations continue at the time of writing), could any Welsh government afford to be far behind? Or Northern Irish? And then, what of the English? It is fatuous to say, “Oh well, that’s devolution.” Pursuit of such objectives turns devolution into a kind of snout-in-the-trough nationalism, whose end can only be an exasperated sundering of the ways. In the state we are now in, poised between devolution to the three non-English regions and something which might be a workable federalism, the only posture available to the central government is an insistence on privileging the British over the Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish. Anything else and we lose the precious result of centralised government: that you should expect the same treatment and the same standards wherever you go in Britain, and that you are thus part of the same society. An answer to the English question? For the time being, the only part of England which is actively interested in a regional assembly is the northeast. This has something to do with strong regional affinities, but it may also be linked to the fact that northeasterners can peer over the border into Scotland and observe how much more public money already flows to its citizens. Politicians in the northeast have constructed a northeastern convention on the model of Scotland’s in the 1980s and 1990s-an imitation so faithful that the northeasterners have even put a cleric, the Bishop of Durham, in the chair, just as in Scotland. But a lot of important people are still convinced that the English are not, in the main, a “regional” people. Perhaps they are a mayoral people. It has been estimated that about two thirds of the population of England live in or near the ten largest cities. Could the future mayors of these cities speak for England? And play leap-frog for it, too? New politics Scots politics got worryingly elevated during the past two years. One could not read about the devolved parlia– ment without the boast that it would usher in a “new politics” of consensus and compromise, made possible by proportional representation. As in Russia, Israel and Italy? The last of these is trying (and failing) to replace the system of consensus and compromise available through PR for a first-past-the-post system that might produce a stable government. The obvious point is that political systems do not mechanically produce anything; political and civic cultures do. Scots political culture has to prove itself; it cannot be read off from a system about which the Scots political class continually congratulates itself. The inflation of rhetoric is bad; worse is the conflation of devolution with virtue. The hard work comes now, as the members of the Scottish parliament are tested on how far they are prepared to take responsibility for a limited legislature which must both prove its worth to Scotland and prove that it will be-as Labour has stressed-a bulwark against break-up, not a stimulus for it. In the pre- and post-election studios of Edinburgh and Glasgow, the politicians seemed as anxious to score points, exaggerate cases and claim omniscience as their English equivalents. The “new” is an accolade still to be won.