Vague ramblings

Balkanisation: the shape of things to come?

Posted in Life, Musing, Regionalism, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 24 June, 2016

The trouble with economists and political scientists is that they do not understand space. While the notion of borders may seem clear to them, they are not properly trained to understand geography.

So forget the market turmoil and the potential threat to the UK’s dominance in key markets, especially financial. Forget that the UK has chosen to complete its transformation from global superpower to complete irrelevance.

Consider these two maps (you can click for larger versions, or follow the links to the source). The first, from the Guardian, shows the distribution of referendum results, adjusted for population. The source has some interesting graphs as well.

The second, from the BBC, shows the distribution of various immigrant groups (no Scotland because that’s how Census data is published).

In the context of a Leave campaign that was shamelessly (and shamefully) racist, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the areas where people have actually met migrants, day-to-day – worked with them, socialised with them, talked to them are the ones who voted most strongly for Remain – the main exception being Birmingham. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. UKIP’s heartland in the East of England is the part of the country with fewest immigrants (although farming relies a lot of migrant labour).

The big cities and the centres of knowledge voted Remain.

But the largely white, English (not British, English) working classes in areas that have been pretty well bankrolled by the EU voted for Leave and a truly impressive case of cut-off-nose-to-spite-faces.

This white son of a truck driver has written quite often (sometimes intemperately) on the capacity of the white English to find other people to blame for their woes. But, really, it is to do with the crushing of aspiration more than anything. They do not care that our kids will find it harder to travel for work to 27 countries. They (we) are no longer expected to aspire – indeed aspiration is actively discouraged, so when times get tough the fingers get pointed. Compare and contrast with the get-up-and-go of the stereotypical Polish brickie, who could be a poster child for Norman Tebbitt’s childish aphorisms.

When I graduated there was nobody in the room prouder than my Dad – left school at 13, Burma Star, drove all over the continent for Marconi, grafted his way to a senior position, dyed-in-the-wool Conservative. He and Mum couldn’t afford the “parental contribution” to my grant, and I only once made the mistake of asking for it.

And, of course, that was in the days of a grant: even if the modern white English working classes could be persuaded to aspire, to lift their eyes and look around the World of opportunity, they would be discouraged by the prospect of a lifetime mountain of debt.

It is an ugly, ugly situation in a homeland that is becoming nastier by the day.

But look back at that map. It takes no imagination at all to see Scotland opting for independence. If I were Nicola Sturgeon I’d be seriously considered going for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence.  OK, probably not – but it is hard to see David Cameron as anything other than the PM whose hubris cost us the Union.

But what of those cities, and especially of London?

How well will England’s great centres of finance and knowledge respond to being asked to pick up the tab for regional policy that is, right now, 100% EU funded? Anything that is seen as moving resources out of the capital – financial or physical – will, history shows us, be seen as anti-London and resisted fiercely. Twitter jokes about a London Independence Party will remain just that, of course, but the underlying feeling will not go away. London, for better or worse, has kept the UK afloat since the days of Thatcher (and there is a very strong case for saying “the worse”, but that is entirely moot).

Add the Government’s (perfectly laudable) taste for city-regions exercising greater autonomy – and note that the main one, Manchester, voted Remain;  season with the thought that Plaid Cymru might see a nice anti-English stick to beat the campaign drums with, and division may not be limited to the exit of Scotland.

It’s called Balkanisation for reasons that history (not just recent) teaches us. It doesn’t need to be at all literal.

It will still be cancerous.

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England my England: no railroading, thanks, Prime Minister

Posted in Life, Regionalism, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 20 September, 2014

The Journal, of Newcastle, asked a perfectly reasonable question. If much of the pressure for independence in Scotland stemmed from the argument that is is remote from London and therefore neglected, why should anyone suppose that Newcastle, which is a lot closer to Edinburgh than it is to London, be viewed any differently?

Or Liverpool. Or Sheffield. Or Plymouth.

With tedious predictability David Cameron decided to try to railroad a Tory vision of English government and the Westminster machine continues in its centuries long strategy of “Whatever it takes to avoid fundamental change”.

Simply excluding Scots and Welsh and Irish MPs from “English matters” does not address the problem of power concentrated in the Westminster Bubble, which is as big a problem in Newcastle (and Liverpool and Sheffield and Plymouth) as it is in Glasgow.

Never mind that what is an “English” matter is also not straightforward – HS2 would doubtless spawn HS4 (it has already spawned HS3) as the Scots seek to get on the Hight Speed Rail gravy…er… train.

Things tend to spawn.

And it is not just in the remotest outposts that London’s distance is felt. In my neck of the woods, about 23 miles from Charing Cross, there is growing resentment at “Londoners” moving in and driving out locals whose families have been in the area for centuries. There is a different set of issues to Newcastle (or Liverpool etc), but they are issues nonetheless.

In a world of multiple overlapping catchment areas, spheres of influence and trade and exchange flows, a bottom-up approach has merits, but can also lead to strong areas teaming up to exclude weak areas from decision making (see the experience of Local Enterprise Partnerships, if you are interested). It needs proper consideration, not off-the-cuff remarks on the steps of Downing Street just hours after a huge constitutional matter was considered by a huge electorate.

My view is that we need to revisit regionalism, but this time not in the half-arsed, moronic manner that John Prescott delivered on his watch – and which the North East rightly rejected.

Proper regionalism aims to remove power from the centre that does not absolutely have to be there, not to insert an extra tier. Some matters can be resolved by a parish council before the Rose & Crown opens, some can be addressed at the town level and so on up to supra-national. The counties are the useless tier, as the level of unitary conversion shows.

Decentralised governments must have, just like Scotland, revenue raising powers to give them the authority to go along with their responsibility and they must, of course, be democratically accountable. Central government should be the backstop – with enough clout to impose fiscal discipline, but otherwise the lender, court, arbiter and guardian of last resort.

You can probably work out that this points to a written constitution, with a proper statement of the separation of powers, along with wholesale electoral reform.

Call it a Constitutional Convention, call it a Royal Commission, call it Albert – change should only progress after proper consideration by, for and of all interested parties.

There’s only about 60 million of us.

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