Saturday, November 03, 2007

Brown's Barnett Blunders

Weekly column published in the Newcastle Journal this morning.


Over the past 18 months or so, there is one particular subject on which Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made more speeches, public comments and general pronouncements than on any other issue.

Is it the economy, you might very well ask? Or education, once New Labour’s number one priority? No, in fact, it is “Britishness.”

Some see this preoccupation with our national identity as phoney, a desperate attempt by a politician embarrassed about his Scottishness to convince the voters he’s really just like the rest of us.

Others see it as an attempt to smooth over the old rivalries between the UK’s constituent parts - such as when he talked about “the whole country” getting behind England’s Rugby World Cup Final bid.

Either way, Gordon Brown is clearly a great believer in the Union – or so at least he keeps telling us.

So is it merely a supreme political irony that the Prime Minister finds himself presiding over the gradual disintegration of that very Union – or is it down to supreme political ineptitude on his part?

This week, David Cameron did what some of us have been expecting for a very long time, and propelled the future constitutional arrangements between England and Scotland into the political frontline.

There is actually nothing very new in what the Tories are saying. But in politics, timing is all, and suddenly, Mr Cameron’s plans for English-only laws have struck a chord with the electorate.

To some extent, the current upsurge of interest in the “English Question” is the inevitable consequence of the accession to the British premiership of the MP for Dunfermline East.

But it is also being fuelled by growing discontent south of the border about the advantageous funding arrangements enjoyed by the Scots under the infamous “Barnett Formula.”

That is something, of course, that people in the North-East region have known about for a very long time, not least from the interminable wrangle over the state of the A1.

While the Scottish Executive has long since used the Barnett billions to upgrade its bit of the road, Ruth Kelly has recently become the latest in a long line of Labour Transport Secretaries to reject calls to dual the North-East section of the route.

That’s not all. Since the Scottish Parliament was established, it has also abolished university tuition fees, introduced free eye care and dental check ups, handed out extra central heating grants and brought in free personal care for the elderly.

In addition, it has also been able to fund the free bus travel for pensioners which, in England, is having to be paid for out of hard-pressed local authority coffers.

Over the course of recent weeks, Alex Salmond’s new SNP government in Edinburgh has brought the issue into fresh focus by announcing the wholesale scrapping of prescription charges as well.

As a result, people are beginning to realise what some of us have been saying for a decade – that the Scots’ inbuilt spending advantage under the Barnett Formula is neither justified nor politically sustainable.

But of all the leading figures in UK politics, it is Mr Brown who more than anyone else cannot say he wasn’t warned about this.

Back in 1999, the Treasury Select Committee under the then Durham North MP Giles Radice carried out an inquiry into the Barnett Formula which called on the government to carry out a new “assessment of regional need.”

Everyone knew this was tantamount to saying that the then 20-year-old formula no longer reflected the needs of the UK’s nations and regions and should be superseded by something new.

It was an incredibly brave move by Mr Radice, but although he resisted attempts to nobble him, he was unable to resist attempts to ennoble him, and he left the Commons at the 2001 election.

His replacement as Treasury Committee chair was a very different animal – the Brownite loyalist, and MP for West Dumbartonshire John McFall, who proceeded to bury the issue, despite valiant attempts by Newcastle Central MP Jim Cousins to keep it alive.

Yet in retrospect, Mr Brown might be wishing he had paid more attention to the Committee’s original 1999 report. Politically and economically, it was exactly the right time for Labour to reform the infamous formula.

The politics of the situation were that, having succeeded in setting up the Scottish Parliament, Labour’s support was riding high north of the border and the SNP reduced almost to irrelevance.

Even more compelling, though, were the economics. It was a time when public expenditure was rising sharply, and as Mr Cousins pointed out, a change to Scotland’s funding share could effectively have been “hidden” within the context of increased spending overall.

But because of his stubborn and shortsighted refusal to countenance change back then, Mr Brown now finds himself between a rock and a hard place.

While any departure from the status quo would hand a huge propaganda gift to Mr Salmond, doing nothing simply aids the Tories’ attempts to exploit the growing English discontent.

Significantly, Mr Cameron has not yet himself gone as far as pledging to scrap the formula. His proposal for an “English Grand Committee” is effectively a repackaged version of the policy of “English votes for English laws” on which they fought the last election.

There are huge flaws in the proposal – not least the fact that it would be up to Speaker Michael Martin, the MP for Glasgow North East, to determine what is an “English” bill – but at least the Tory leader is being seen to be doing something.

New Labour’s refusal to reform the Barnett Formula when it was in a position to do so is a metaphor for its entire performance in government.

It had two majorities of 160 plus. It was faced by an opposition which wasn’t capable of running a whelk stall. It had a chance to do difficult but necessary things for the long-term benefit of the country. And it didn’t do them.

If Labour tries to do reform the formula now, it will boost Mr Salmond’s campaign for a fully independent Scotland. If he does not, the resentment in England may well build to the point where people would be quite happy to see the Scots break away.

What price the poor old Union then, Mr Brown?

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Fred Forsythe (not the) said...

Paul, please don't use the words Nations and Regions. The Nations supposed to be 5 million Scots and 3.7 million Welsh whilst the 'Regions are supposed to be the nationless, cultureless and historyless remanents of a place called ENGLAN. Some, 55million of use find that offensive.

Anonymous said...

Yep, as you've referred to "England" in your piece, "nations and regions" does seem a little nonsensical, Paul.

chickenshometoroost said...

The other missed opportunity was the regional assemblies. It was no surprise that the Government's feeble offering was voted down in 2004. Strong regional assemblies could have helped address the West Lothian Question and put pressure for fair distribution of resources to the north east. The elephant in the corner of the room in the Glasgow Herald's recent investigation of spending on Scotland is the dire situation in the north-east of England. While the London and Scottish media and politicians ding-dong about who gets what - who is fighting for north-east England? There is no evidence to suggest an English Grand Committee or English Parliament would do anything to address this. Independent Nations, Federal UK or the status quo - whatever the scenario, the north-east will always be at the bottom of other peoples agendas. Perhaps a subject the Liberal Conspiracy could take up?

Paul Linford said...

It's interesting that regional assemblies still have their supporters, and I would agree that the North-East in particular still needs a stronger political voice to make its case. But the 2004 referendum showed that the idea is politically a non-starter, at least in this generation.

The hope of regional devolutionists was always that one or two assemblies would be established in regions like the North-East and Yorkshire and then the rest of the country would look at them and say: "I want a bit of that," and eventually the project would be rolled out across the country. The referendum result put paid to any thought of this.

Even if an assembly were to be established in the North-East, it would not be a good thing for the rest of the country, as it would introduce further assymetric devolution into the system and we have already seen the corrosive effects of that from the Scottish and Welsh experience.

Hence an English Parliament is now the only sensible solution. It will certainly be interesting to see how that idea goes down on Liberal Conspiracy!

chickenshometoroost said...

I would certainly concede that the regional assemblies idea is finished for this generation - thanks to New Labour. But the assemblies were only one possible solution for delivering greater fairness and pushing the north-east's interests.

What is disappointing is that the campaign and the campaigners in the NE seem to have gone quiet (correct me if I am wrong). For example, just because the regional assemblies didn't get up why has the Campaign for the English Regions seemingly disappeared? Why have they not continued to push for a fairer deal for the regions?

I think there is a very good argument for a north-east political party to push these issues - (probably starting at the council level). Whatever the future constitutional changes, a north-east party would be there to put the case for the region.

I agree an English Parliament is probably inevitable. But it will be a nightmare if it is hijacked by the same old English establishment mind set. It must be a break with the past ways of doing things.

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