Powerful Mayors Could Mend English Democratic Deficit

Calls for a separate English legislature could be staved off if mayors were given the same powers as London’s.

View of the Houses of Parliament from across the Thames River, London, England, November 10, 2009
View of the Houses of Parliament from across the Thames River, London, England, November 10, 2009 (Mark Bowler)

With the Scottish referendum on independence drawing closer, the one certain thing is that no matter how the region votes, British or English politics will be irreversibly changed.

The history of tension between England and the parliament in Westminster can be traced back to the Scotland Act of 1998 which gave Scotland its own legislature. Since then, affairs that affect only Scotland have been dealt with in Edinburgh. Lawmakers in Westminster have no say anymore in issues to do with transportation or the National Health Service north of the border.

Because affairs that affect only England are still settled in Westminster, however, this has led to the curious situation in which Scottish lawmakers can influence English policy but English lawmakers have no say over Scottish policy. This, in turn, has led to some resentment when unpopular measure end up being adopted in England but rejected in Scotland, an example being the tuition fee increase from £3000 to £9000.

If Scotland votes to stay in the union, this issue will not resolve itself and calls for a separate English parliament are likely to grow louder.

An English legislature would mend the current “democratic deficit” but there are downsides as well. One of the main issues would be English dominance. England has a population of fifty million compared to just over sixty million for the entire United Kingdom. An English parliament would therefore be in permanent competition with an overarching federal Westminster and also potentially be deemed more important to satisfy than those in other devolved areas of the country.

One way to solve this would be to split England up into smaller regions and give those their own assemblies. Some might say that this process was started with the granting of a London Assembly to the capital which alone has a population of some eight million. Historical regions such as Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex could be templates for such a division. They would have similar population counts and be unable to compete with Westminster in their own right.

If, on the other hand, the Scots vote to leave the United Kingdom, this, too, will have consequences for the current structure of English politics. However, it must be remembered that devolution to the English regions was tried once before. John Prescott in 2004, when he was deputy prime minister, launched a referendum on whether North East England should have a regional assembly. 78 percent voted against the plan.

Perhaps in this battle for English power, the current government has hit on the right idea: directly elected mayors, with calls to let some of the have the same powers as London’s Boris Johnson. While it may not solve all the problems, it will give metropolitan areas the power to decide on their own policy matters and, crucially, the public does not see mayors as being an extra layer of government to contend with, as they do with the idea of regional assemblies. Perhaps the time is right for more mayors but not yet for the regions.

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