Saturday, January 20, 2007

Ten years of my Journal column

Column published in today's Newcastle Journal, marking 10 years since the start of the column.


This May, unless of course he is forced out of office before then, Tony Blair will chalk up ten consecutive years as Prime Minister, only the second politician to achieve the milestone since 1827.

There will doubtless be much more to say about that if and when the time comes - but first, another rather less significant but, for me, very happy tenth anniversary.

It was ten years ago this week – on Saturday, January 18, 1997 in fact – that this column appeared in The Journal for the first time.

I remain grateful to the then editor Mark Dickinson for starting it off, to the current editor Brian Aitken for keeping it on after I stood down as political editor in 2004, and to Geoff Laws whose brilliant cartoons have illuminated it from the start.

It seems hard to remember sometimes that, when the column first began, the Tories were still in power, and the New Labour project was seen as something fresh, exciting, and even inspiring.

Mr Blair was still derided in some quarters as “Bambi,” a rather effete young leader as opposed to the tough-as-old-boots political survivor who would go on to dominate his era.

In this region, politicians talked about regional government as if it was just around the corner, and speculated about which of them might one day lead the North’s “mini Parliament.”

Well, a decade is a long time in politics, and although few things turned out as expected, it has been my privilege to help chart the twists and turns of the past one for this great newspaper.

That’s enough of me. But sticking with the subject of anniversaries, this week marked 300 years since one of the seminal political events in our history – the Act of Union between England and Scotland.

It comes at a time of much such-searching about the future of the Union, due in part to the devolution reforms Labour has enacted over the past 10 years.

For sure, devolution represented a belated and much-needed recognition of the Scots’ desire for a great measure of self-determination, and to that extent it has succeeded.

But the failure to address the wider implications for the UK as a whole - or level the funding playing field between its constituent parts – has bred a resentment that now threatens the Union’s long-term viability.

Regional government, of course, was meant to deal with that. It was hoped that by devolving power to a network of regional assemblies, we would eventually arrive at a broadly symmetrical framework.
The North-East referendum in 2004 put paid to that, and those like me who believe some form of English devolution is needed to rebalance the constitution switched our attentions to the idea of an English Parliament.

Two years ago, this was at best a fringe cause with about the same degree of support as the Flat Earth Society or the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Since then, though, it has moved dramatically into the mainstream, with a poll this week showing that 61pc of people in England now support the idea.

Yet in more than one respect this week, we saw a Government whose leading members are in denial about the situation they have helped create.

For Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, it’s still quite simple. Regional government remains the only sensible solution, and some bright day, the people will come to realise this.

“I'm sad that regional government was rejected in the North East, but I believe that England will eventually move to elected regional government - just as Scotland and Wales originally rejected devolution and then voted for it,” he said on Wednesday.

Some might call it contempt for the electorate. Others might call it losing touch with reality. Both would be fair accusations.

But for me, in an era in which most politicians will say anything to get elected, I can’t help but admire Prezza for the way he sticks to his guns in support of an unpopular cause.

Mr Blair’s position, though, is even more bone-headed. Having allowed this state of affairs to develop in the first place, he now proposes to do precisely nothing about it.

Questioned about this week’s poll at his monthly press conference on Tuesday, he said that setting up a separate English parliament would be "unworkable" and "unnecessary".

That is all of a piece with his eve-of-election pledge to this newspaper in 2001 when he said he would not reform the funding rules by which English taxpayers continue to subsidise the Scots.

“No taxation without representation” goes the old slogan. For the English, read “More taxation means less representation.”

Finally, there is Gordon Brown. Unlike Mr Blair, who soon won’t have to worry about it any more, the uncertainty over the future of the Union presents him with an acute political problem.

As he made clear in an interview this week, he is desperate to keep the Union together, and I don’t doubt for a moment that he genuinely believes in it.

But more pertinent to the Chancellor’s current predicament is the fear that, as the present situation unravels, the English will become less and less likely to consent to be ruled by a Scot.

It is almost bound to become an election issue in 2009/10, and the Chancellor just has to live in hope that it doesn’t become too big a one.

So is the Union falling apart? Well, you certainly wouldn’t bet on it lasting another 300 years at the moment.

But then again, adaptability to changing political circumstances has been the watchword of our unwritten constitution for centuries, and there is no reason why it cannot adapt to this new challenge.

A nationalist victory in May’s Scottish Parliament elections may well force the Government to take a wider look at the issue, and in my view, that would be a positive development.

I won’t be here in another 50 years’ time. But I would rather like to think that the United Kingdom will be.


paige said...

If the SNP do win the May election we are guaranteed to keep the UK, unless they opt to be governed by the EU.

If Scotland break up the union, it makes all power passed to the EU null and void as these powers were made for the UK. If the UK no longer exists we will save billions of pounds of taxpayers money going over to the EU. Best of all we should give Scotland a bonus for getting us out of a very undemocratic situation.
I say go for it SNP, you'll have a hell of a lot of bartering power with the English after that.. After all our so called democracy will not let the people have a coice about who governs us its the EU or the EU!

alex said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stephenie said...

Good post.

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