As the Northeast prepares to vote on a regional assembly, Huw Richards talks politics with the man heading the ESRC's devolution programme.
Charlie Jeffery will have an excellent vantage point as the Northeast votes next week on the creation of England's first regional assembly. He is director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Devolution and Constitutional Change programme, and he moved from Birmingham's Institute of German Studies over the summer to take up the chair in politics at Edinburgh University, where, fittingly, he is within walking distance of the new Scottish Parliament building.
His earlier career made him well aware of the importance of seizing opportunities. He arrived at Leicester University in 1989, armed with a degree in European studies (specialising in German and economics) and a PhD on labour movement in the Austrian town of Steyr, plus a year's teaching experience at Staffordshire Polytechnic. It was a good year for anyone interested in German politics. "The wall fell during my first term lecturing on German politics." But, in personal terms, the crucial event had happened a few weeks earlier when he was invited to a conference on German federalism and later asked to edit the book that came out of it.
"That launched me into working on federalism," he says.
The speciality has been good to him: he has become increasingly interested in relationships between regions and the European Union. He also met his wife, who is Flemish Belgian, "on the academic federalism circuit".
This comparative background served him well when it came to bidding for the directorship of the Devolution and Constitutional Change project, a flagship multidisciplinary ESRC venture incorporating 38 research strands over five years. He argues that Britain went into the devolution process without taking much notice of other European examples: "Part of the problem is our weakness in languages, but it goes beyond that. There are plenty of people involved in the devolved systems in Spain and Germany who speak good enough English to explain how their system works, if anybody bothers to ask. But British politicians - and for that matter British political science - almost invariably look the other way, towards North America."
The impact of devolution on Scotland is evident, he says: "The Scottish Parliament is one of the most powerful sub-state parliaments in the world in terms of what it can do and its budgetary freedoms. You can see its impact in the Scottish media, where papers such as The Scotsman and The Herald have large sections devoted to Scottish politics. And I think that it has raised the quality of representatives. It doesn't have the stars, who are still at Westminster, but there are fewer dynastic seats and a greater range of voices."
Rather less explored, but arguably more important, is the impact that devolution has had on the broader politics of the UK. Jeffery argues that Britain's rulers have devoted remarkably little attention to the implications of change: "We lack an overall picture. You've had a couple of speeches by Tony Blair and a little more from [Chancellor] Gordon Brown, but that's about it. It has been a typical British muddle-through, adding new bodies to existing administrative arrangements without thinking through what it all means and what might have been changed."
He points to one serious gap, the absence of provisions for resolving conflict between the centre and devolved bodies. With Labour in power at Westminster and the largest party in both Holyrood and Cardiff, conflict during the first five years of devolution has been limited. But Jeffery says: "There is no doubt that you will get conflict - and that won't mean that devolution is not working - conflict is an inevitable part of politics. There are two obvious likely cases. One is that you get an economic downturn and public finances suddenly become a great deal tougher.
It has been easy so far, with more money available each year, but that can't last for ever and tough choices will have to be made. We have a strange system of public financing that was designed for the 1970s rather than for today and that will lead to further complications."
The other case is where the Government in Westminster comes from a different party from that in Holyrood or Cardiff. "There's a fair chance you'll get this together with a downturn, since downturns tend to lead to governments being thrown out. And it won't happen only when there is a Conservative government in Westminster. It is entirely possible to imagine there being a Conservative-SNP coalition one day in Scotland."
What happens then, he argues, simply has not been thought through: "Spain and Germany have systems for settling disputes between central and devolved government and routine contacts that build up relations and trust between them. You need to have shock absorbers in the system, and their absence in Britain is down to sheer complacency."
Nor, he argues, has the Government thought about the implications of devolution for England and its regions, for example, with regard to migration patterns should Scotland have an economic boom. It is precisely this sort of "spillover effect", he argues, that is informing the demand for an assembly in the Northeast. "Scotland is dominating the debate, with 'yes' campaigners arguing that it gives a neighbouring region of the UK a clear advantage over them."
The implications of a "no" vote on November 4 would be considerable, he says. "It would end the programme of creating elected regional bodies in English regions before it had started - you'll see decentralisation at administrative level, but no local democratic body to match - and it might well be the end for (Deputy Prime Minister) John Prescott."
But he regards a yes vote as more likely, leading to a trickle-down effect on other regions. The long-term logic of this is the creation of a series of English regional assemblies, while Wales can expect a further referendum on the Richard report proposals for extending Welsh Assembly powers and a demand for better thought-out policies. Jeffery suggests that the Spanish system of "asymmetric devolution", under which regions can decide how much devolution they want - a great deal for Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, considerably less for Castilla La Mancha - could provide an example.
For himself, he expects to follow his directorship of the project, which will end next year, with a large comparative work informed both by British experience and his earlier work on European federalisms: "I want to look at how we should be rethinking territorial politics, with the existing nation state increasingly being challenged by greater emphasis on territorial community." He won't be short of material or experience.