One of the casualties of the reorganisation of local government in the early 1970s was the Isle of Ely absorbed within a much extended Cambridgeshire. While there may have been a logical and administrative case for this, it still rankles with many older residents in the now expunged shire. Yet even in the Isle there were differences largely between those who regarded themselves as Fen people and those who did not, a distinction based on whether you were a Fen person born and those regarded as ‘foreigners’ (and that included those born in the old shire of Cambridge). The Fens was not an administrative unit but covered parts of the Isle, Norfolk, smidgeons of Suffolk and Lincolnshire. The trick is to find a structure that marries individual identity with historical traditions (and myth) and administrative necessities.
This is indicative of the problems involved in creating a regional structure in England—or in fact in Scotland or Wales. People, even in these days of global social networking and global awareness, still have an intense attachment to ‘their’ localities. In part this is a consequence of how the English state developed before 1945. Although that state was already centralised with most political power and decision-making (at least at the level of policy) made in Westminster, how people experienced those policies was mediated through local institutions—face-to-face contact with ‘government’ was through the vestry, parish council, the shire structures rather than with Westminster and declining involvement is politics can be explained by the breakdown in this personal contact with those institutions. If all key decisions are made in London, why should people really bother about what’s going on in their own localities? This is reflected in the paltry number of voters in local elections—why bother to vote for something that really has little control over your destinies—and this has had a debilitating effect on national elections with a progressive decline in turnout. Today, no political party in local or national government has a majority mandate for its actions. What we are witnessing is the de-democratisation of politics and the creation of technocratic conceptions of government in which elections do not really change anything but essentially tweak policies.
The question is whether an English parliament—for which there is a strong case within a federal structure—or establishing self-governing regions will put the ‘demos’ back into democracy. If not, then all we will have is another administrative reorganisation that will bring about ‘cosmetic change’—it will seem to address the constitutional concerns of the people (well at least that will be what politicians in Westminster say: ‘we’re listening’!) but all it will do is create another tier of ambitious, self-important and self-obsessed, if well-meaning politicians who lack any real popular legitimacy. The truth is that we cannot go back to the regionalism of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy or the early-modern notion of the ‘commonweal’—England is no longer a rural, democratic idyll, something that has long been discarded in the dustbin of history. Yet, for some people at least, nostalgia for a ‘lost past’—that is reality did not exist—lies behind their support for regionalism. Yes there are differences between the different parts of England—a diversity that should be celebrated—but whether regional constitutional structures resolve those differences rather than magnifying them is a moot point.