As the United Kingdom celebrates its 100th year in its current reconfiguration we asked how power should be shared going forward.
The UK is one of the most centralised nations in the developed world. While the devolved nations now have extensive powers to shape their own futures, devolution within England itself is lagging behind.
We have seen some major changes in recent years, with moves towards business rates retention for local authorities and the development of combined authorities and eventually metro mayors empowered by city deals. The Government has said it is committed to further devolution in England, but a promised white paper last year was delayed, and has now been rolled into a wider ‘levelling up’ white paper, due soon.
Hopefully, the delay will mean that further plans for devolution will be closely tied to the Government’s strategy for spreading economic opportunities more evenly across the country. In particular, there should be a focus on how to embed metro mayors and combined authorities into major public investment decisions. Wherever possible, areas should be incentivised to grow their local economy as part of this.
London has benefitted for years now from greater autonomy to invest in and operate its transport systems, and to raise revenue or borrow in order to expand and improve services. Those same powers should be extended to more areas of the country. The planned new ‘county deals’ should also devolve powers based on careful consideration of economic geographies, so that each deal is tailored to what is appropriate for that county.
The United Kingdom is a partnership that relies on cooperation. However, the dispersal of powers towards devolved governments since the late 1990s has created a legislative impulse away from cooperation and towards devolved decision making. It has fundamentally altered the governance of the UK and created a constitutional tension, between the need for cooperation at the UK level and the desire for more power at a local level, that has yet to be resolved.
This tension was on show throughout the pandemic: the vaccine roll-out and furlough scheme clearly demonstrate the power of the union but the uneven roll-out of mask mandates, Covid passports and social distancing measures show the growing tendency towards divergence between the different devolved nations and the UK Government. If this tension is not addressed, it is likely that intergovernmental relations will continue to sour. The answer to this is not simply more devolution.
Over the last two decades, there have been almost continuous calls for more power from the devolved nations but very little in the way of greater accountability.
For instance, the Scottish Government have repeatedly called for more increased fiscal autonomy but have failed to take advantage of the pensions and benefits powers they already have. Public service deterioration, such as the decades’ high drug mortality rate in Scotland or poor educational outcomes in Wales, are not the responsibility of the UK government but of the devolved nations, yet accountability remains obscured by the lack of coordinated UK metrics and claims of inadequate power. Moving forward, if power is to be better shared in the UK, it is essential that there is a renewed focus on transparency and accountability at a devolved level as well as renewed calls for greater decentralisation.
In the latest edition of the London Review of Books, Ferdinand Mount makes the point that although the UK has successfully bequeathed strong models of federalism and decentralisation to the Commonwealth and post-war Germany, within the country the issue has ‘remained a fad for pointyheads’. Amen to that.
This is a question to which the answer has to be ‘yes’, but moderated. The realpolitik dominates. And in the run up to the Levelling Up White Paper’s publication on 27 October, we must ask the likely probability on the political calculus that power will be better shared.
In our jumbled and deeply asymmetric devolution settlement between the countries of the UK, the English question is the one most in need of a response. With nearly 85 per cent of the population, England is too populous and powerful for any hope of balance among Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
England remains the only country of the UK without a parliament, government and first minister. As such it lacks anything like the devolved political powers matching those granted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the late 1990s.
And the imbalance between those parts of the England in receipt of strategic economic and devolution deals, from the poster boys of devolution in Greater Manchester, West Midlands and Tees Valley. Compare and contrast to vast swathes of our shire county areas – it really is retro versus metro.
Function should trump pre-determined form. Ordinary people don’t obsess about what their local democratic settlement looks different in Nottingham or Northumberland. It just has to deliver. If the centre had the confidence in our local leaders to cede, and let a thousand flowers bloom, then England could and should, in George Orwell’s phrase ‘assume it’s real shape’.