11 February 2014

Looking at Mebyon Kernow (MK) and devolution I am reminded of Swift’s satire on the projectors of the Lagado academy: “He had been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, which were to be put into vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.”

Without form and void
Mebyon Kernow (MK) cried up a long overdue review of its signature autonomy policy, a policy currently largely “without form and void” I think. While we wait through the MK gestation we have a few disappointing snippets. This article on the MK website gives some but the petition for a law-making assembly reserves “a detailed proposal” to any future discussions with the UK government. Mus ridiculus, I fear.

In this post I shall look again at the funding of an autonomous Cornwall, a matter that MK has so far not dealt with thoroughly and convincingly. I shall look at matters of governance and the nationalist economy later.

Cornwall, the dependent beggar
In finances, what nationalism is suggesting is, I think, very unattractive: a suppliant Cornwall whose new symbol is a begging bowl. Does MK see Cornwall as a perpetual suppliant?

There appear to be no ambitions for Cornwall be self-financing, spending in Cornwall only what Cornwall raises here, a Cornwall financially autonomous. Nationalist Cornwall will apparently be underwritten by taxpayers in the UK, largely by London and the South East of England (see the funding posts at the foot of this post). Nationalism apparently seeks an initial financial settlement – what it costs to run nationalist Cornwall – and then to that presumably is annually applied a percentage according to the the discredited Barnett formula.

Gone is the nationalist fable that Cornwall – with low wages, low GDP, high pensioner numbers – pays more in than it takes out of Britain. What nationalism is tacitly admitting is that Cornwall cannot survive without subsidies from the rest of England – and that largely means, let us be very clear, London and the south east.

This is not autonomy; it is dependency; it is Belloc:

“And always keep ahold of nurse
For fear of finding something worse”.

Apparently MK expects to negotiate with the UK government to arrive at the initial settlement. This would, it presumably hopes, take account of the nationalist view that Cornwall is currently underfunded (as, it might be argued, is much of England) and be based on needs, or rather the needs met by what is devolved to Cornwall. The website also talks of “needs-based funding”.

There are several points of difficulty that MK is not addressing here.

Who gets a say?
MK suggests that the UK government should “work with the people of Cornwall to formulate a detailed proposal” for the assembly. I am unclear who the “people of Cornwall” are here. I suspect it will be a handful of people. MK should explain whether and how the generality of the people here would have any input into any discussions with the government; or which “people of Cornwall” actually will. The end will be a binding referendum of the “electorate”. Which electorate is that? Only voters resident in Cornwall? MK is not seeking independence which could reasonably be seen as only a matter for Cornwall voters. The limited devolution sought is a different question as the rest of the UK and England would still be involved and have responsibilities. Would the electors in the rest get a vote on the reassignment of their taxes and their being the financial underwriters of the nationalist project and their residual and continuing responsibilities for Cornwall?

What are needs and fair funding
To say needs should be met and consequent funding should be fair is insufficient. MK should tell us what it sees by needs and consequent fairness in funding. What is the underlying principle on which needs and fairness in Cornwall are worked out? I have written several posts such as this one about the inadequacy of nationalist (and Libdem) cries for fair funding. Look at two examples, the NHS and schools. The debate about the funding of the NHS in localities shows how needs and fairness are not Sinai-given, undisputed ideas, but rather ideological notions, heavily conflicted.

We should ask too how much school funding should be a simple matter of equal percapita arithmetic and how far deprivation such as the proportion of free school meals – another contended aspect – should be taken into account. The nationalist foray into the scale of public funding for the only state school in the City of London compared with schools in Cornwall shows the difficulties and does not build confidence in MK. Of course more schools are becoming academies funded directly by government and it looks as though Cornwall Council will in effect cease to be an education authority. How does MK see this working in an autonomous Cornwall?

Too often the impression is given by nationalism that needs and fairness can be ascertained by average percapita arithmetic which is at bottom population-based rather than needs-based funding. MK should clear up how it sees the relationship between these two approaches. The unitary council’s recent foray into perceived underfunding seemed to fix on percapita arithmetic.

The council also raised the question of allocations among urban and rural areas of England. This is a shift to a new take on fair funding, a late recognition that this is not a Cornwall-only issue but an all-England one. This aspect should certainly be explored though with more understanding and finesse than the simplism that it costs more to provide often lesser services in rural than urban areas. Writing about fair funding and urban and rural allocations, the MK leader recently wrote in terms of percapita comparisons.

What’s in
I assume that MK will be more forthcoming and tell us comprehensively and exactly what the devolved matters would be, what it wishes to see devolved to its Cornwall. This would indicate how ambitious it is for Cornwall.

Does MK intend a nationalist Cornwall to be able to vary income tax and if so by how much? Claim stamp duty, whatever? How far is membership of the UK compatible with tax freedom? How far is financial control by central government compatible with autonomy? MK should share its thoughts.

People currently are being asked to support this devolution without knowing wholly what it involves.

Would an autonomous Cornwall be better or less able to resist the localisation, the cornishing, of benefits and pay? What would be the basis of any nationalist, assemblied Cornwall claim to be different from England but entitled to England-level benefits and pay? I have explored this in several posts about localisation and it is another aspect on which MK should be forthcoming. MK believes that Cornwall is a historic nation distinct from England but also in its election manifesto opposes distinct regional pay for Cornwall: it is difficult to see coherence there.

Localisation throws up another problem. I think that central government is needed to guarantee the rights of local people to affordable housing against their fellows who want no change. This is a challenge for localism that nationalism shirks: localism in places in Cornwall has meant opposition to affordable houses for locals. An autonomous Cornwall would continue to face this reactionary response; how would MK deal with it?

And what does the base cost
MK should tell us what it expects the initial settlement, the foundation funding, to be. At present nationalism says that the initial funding would be based on what the British government currently spends in Cornwall. That’s a muddy point. What is MK including in that spend? Only assignable public expenditure of the devolved functions, presumably. At presently PESA data does not separately cost places smaller than countries and regions but I assume MK is already doing the arithmetic. Is it?

What does Cornwall raise
From that there is the question how much towards those costs is currently raised and, as I mentioned earlier, should be raised in Cornwall. That’s back to the arithmetic which I assume MK is already doing.

There is also the question of balancing public spending in Cornwall and taxing. Would people in Cornwall pay more taxes to get better public services? What does MK think?

Conflicting points
Additionally nationalism seems to make two incompatible points. One the one hand it appears to argue that any funding for Cornwall would not cost the UK any more than the county receives at present; on the other it claims that Cornwall is underfunded by the UK government and a future funding agreement should put this right. Thus, simultaneously not costing a penny more than now and costing more than now.

Who loses
Let us suppose Cornwall is widely underfunded and that should be set right. MK does not identify where any more funding for Cornwall should come from. Nationalism always shies away from identifying the source of the extra money for Cornwall, that is, from telling the people elsewhere in England they must lose present or future public money (from growth or higher taxes) so that Cornwall can have more; that, for example, the funding of their schools and hospitals must be cut for Cornish devolution. MK should send out its missionaries to spell out to people in Sunderland and Liverpool, urban both, that it believes they must get less so that nationalist Cornwall gets more.

It is irresponsible not to explain where the extra money will come from and how much we are talking about. How much must Sunderland lose or forgo? MK is silent.

Mugging the poor
There is an added difficulty for MK with sees itself as a progressive leftist party.

Eighty four percent of the most deprived neighbourhoods are in English cities (Cities outlook 2014). Look again at the indices of multiple deprivation, the figures for free school meals, and deprivation pupil premiums: a shift in funding from urban to rural areas would in gross be taking funds from the most deprived parts of England. That is not progressive politics.

In sum

Swift again: “There was a most ingenious architect who had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof and working downwards towards the foundation”

It is inadequate for MK to prate generalities, however glittering. This is a Gradgrind moment. We are not talking Cornish on every tea towel to entice the tourist. An assembly is a signature MK policy and the party must spell out fully what it sees as assembly matters, the cost of their provision, and how much of that cost is to be raised in Cornwall; and the party must explain fully the principle on which needs and consequent fair funding will be based so that one can scrutinise proposals.

To fly to the moon all one has to do is point a rocket at it and light the touch paper
People in the rest of England have the right to know how much MK expects them to pay for this Cornish adventure. Will they get a vote on any settlement? People in Cornwall have the right to see a worked-out, worked-through policy with details that can be scrutinised, examined, tested, reviewed. MK has had years to get this right and the present vacuities are unimpressive. Let’s hope the promised paper will be comprehensive but at present MK is telling us that to fly to the moon all one has to do is point a rocket at it and light the touch paper. It has to do very much better than that.

Outside the Cornish nationalist laager life in England moves on. The UK government has begun to shift more power and funding from central government to cities and soon will have growth deals for other areas. A current example is Nottingham city deal here. The deal explains in detail how they aim to create economic growth and sets out achievable targets such as a 25 percent fall in youth unemployment and a 4 percent increase in GVA. This growth-orientated devolution makes sense: the economies of Leeds and Manchester city regions are both larger than that of Wales (Cities outlook 2014); growth enables rising living standards and both more opportunity and equality; it destroys the victim agenda. Cornwall may well be offered a growth deal and that would cut the ground from under political nationalism. A negative response from MK would encase the party in irrelevance.

The Libdems will discuss devolution within England at their conference next month. The motion is here : motion F14 on page 57, lines 67-76. Having talked of building on city and growth deals by devolving “more administrative and financial power” to local authorities in England, it then talks of enabling opt-in ”legislative devolution” to London and to principal local authorities, or groups of them, in England with a population of a million or more, and includes Cornwall (population 532 000) in that. Exactly what Libdem devolution involves, what powers would be conferred by it, is not clear from this but it looks like an upgrade to local government and another attempt at the discredited and unloved regionalisation of England.

UPDATE 24 February 2014 Talking of Sunderland, there is this on city autonomy.

He had been eight years and There was a most ingenious: Jonathan SWIFT Gulliver’s travels book 3, chapter 5

Without form and void: Genesis 1.2

Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus: Horace, Ars poetica ()The mountains are in labour and a silly mouse is born)

And always keep: Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) Jim

Some relevant posts
The second labour of Mebyon Kernow 15 April 2013
London subsidises our bills 16 February 2012
Letter from the City of London 3 March 2009
Funding devolution 18 July 2012
Who pays for Cornwall? 12 July 2012
Stripping the nationalist altar 2 March 2011
How should Cornwall be governed? (There is a section on funding) 24 October 2009