Greater Birmingham needs a Super PAC

Published as a opinion piece on The Chamberlain Files.

My colleague Paul Dale wrote at length yesterday about the ideas being discussed in recent contributions to the localism debate from Labour Party heavyweights in a series of lectures and pamphlets. He ended on a weary note, that devolution was always a day away, because he’s heard it all before.

Politicians, academics and journalists are often obsessed with the ideas or forms of local government (I confess to being guilty of such). But across the spectrum, self governance and devolution is largely seen as what needs to be introduced, particularly in light of successful cases from around the country: Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and – perhaps most importantly for regions across England – London. Any more discussion about the ‘who, what, where, when and why’ of devolution is not the best use of our time. What actually needs serious consideration is the ‘how’ question.

Generally, there has been no elaboration of the strategic thinking by which devolution can be achieved politically, and so the West Lothian question is either lost in the storm in a teacup that is Westminster, beguiled by ambiguity or racked by inertia and disinterest. To paraphrase Mr Dale, this leads to a “mañana, mañana ” attitude. What we need to hear is the plan, so we can get started.

Arguably, if leadership genuinely believe this is in the national interest, they could lead on the issue. Push it quickly through Parliament, whip the MPs, overrule the civil servants and place it front and centre of a reform package. Once passed, invest heavily in a constructive public information campaign about the changes. This could be seen to be a cynical and confrontational approach that we’ve seen before – if the general public is apathetic, MPs will have to obey the leadership and power will be devolved.

But the public doesn’t generally respond well to centralist efforts to devolve power (see regional assemblies or mayors). They worry about another wasteful layer of government or about local despots simply picked from untalented regional politicians. I’m not saying this is right, but these were the attacks the successful ‘No’ campaign mustered against mayors.

The alternative is to look North. Scotland currently faces the biggest constitutional decision it has had to make in centuries. The independence may fail at this biggest of hurdles, but regardless, Salmond and the SNP were able to construct a movement that builds from the grassroots up and placed the devolution agenda on the table. The nationalist movement in Scotland offers the model for demanding greater powers in city halls across England. The Scottish secretary, Alistair Carmichael said as much recently. Speaking in the Commons he said:

“It is for the people of England to decide what their constitutional future ought to look like. Scotland worked out where we wanted to be constitutionally. That’s what people in the rest of United Kingdom are now looking to do.

“Yes, there could be a role for Government, but look at the last time the Government insisted on taking a lead on that – when John Prescott offered devolution and a regional assembly.That was a top down process and people of the North-East said ‘no thank you very much’. It’s for the people themselves to formulate and articulate that demand.”

Self evidently Greater Birmingham isn’t a nation, even if almost as large as Scotland. It won’t be as easy to coral a regional sentiment in England as it is national sentiment in the devolved nations. But if a ‘regionalist’ party is untenable, the region should at least form something similar to the US style PACs (Public  Action Committee).

A formal Greater Birmingham PAC could bring together the region’s businesses, think tanks, media, education institutions, unions and political parties and strategically direct them towards the goal of self governance. A political action group would allow the region to harness and pool all the greatest talented individuals and resources in a strategic manner that central movements cannot – moreover, this is the best way to impress upon politicians, civil servants and the public that the region is ready to govern itself. If we want to wield more political and economic muscle, let’s show that we’re capable to do so.

An organisation such as this would have considerable influence both regionally and nationally. Those in Whitehall would not be able to ignore the collective voice of an entire regional community. It is up to the region to demand powers.

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have managed to rally a large number of people to the independence banner, even if the actual question of independence fails, they will undoubtedly gain further powers for Scotland. Constructing something like this would be a mammoth task. It would require the dedication of large number of talented individuals. Perhaps Greater Birmingham needs a few Alex Salmonds and Nicola Sturgeoins to start this political movement.

Or perhaps one better: Greater Birmingham needs its new Joseph Chamberlain.

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