It seems counterintuitive, and maybe untimely, to think of the coronavirus epidemic as a “constitutional moment” as well as a medical crisis. But it might turn out to be just that, though not for the reason you might think.
A constitutional moment is when a decisive rearrangement of power takes place. We may just have seen the start of one. Not between London and Edinburgh, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s more skilled epidemic communications and the rise in independence support, but rather shifts inside England. The face-off between Andy Burnham and other northern Mayors and central government in London about the restrictions applying in their areas looks like the beginning of a long-awaited, and badly needed, redistribution of power within England, with profound consequences for the UK.
On the face of it, this has been an argument about financial support for businesses and individuals affected by lockdown restrictions. But underneath it’s a challenge about both the legitimacy and effectiveness of London government in English regions.
England is the most centralised country in Europe. English local government has suffered decades of disempowerment and control. (Scottish readers should not feel smug: consider Holyrood’s treatment of Scottish councils over the last 10 years.) (See Gordon Munro in this edition). Regional government in England has fared little better. Michael Heseltine’s (weak) Government Offices for the Regions and the regional development agencies set up by Labour after the failure of the north-east referendum have been wound up by recent governments. Directly elected Mayors in some areas might have looked merely symbolic. But they have become a focus for discontent in the present crisis.
That discontent has deep roots. Concern in northern towns and cities about economic disadvantage and alienation from government was successfully mobilised by Brexit campaigners in the 2016 referendum but their real beef was with London, not Brussels. Now, central government’s incapacity to deal effectively with coronavirus – notably the ineffective, centrally run, contractorised test and trace system – stands for a wider inability of the central UK state to operate effectively across England. Whitehall, systematically undermined by recent governments and demoralised by Brexit, has ceased to be able to run things well. Unsurprisingly, people in English regions are asking for more power closer to home. There is an increasing consensus across the UK political parties – especially Labour – that they should get it.
It’s worth asking what sort of distributed power. It’s not a demand for legislative devolution; England’s Parliament is Westminster. Instead, it’s a demand for locally responsive and effective government, extensive executive devolution. We know from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that this can work.
There is no reason at all why the Mayor of Manchester should not have similar powers to Nicola Sturgeon over not just economic development or physical infrastructure, but the administration of health services or education.
Decentralising to the regions
Three things are needed for decentralisation to work well at regional level. First, political legitimacy, which the direct election of Mayors (and maybe, as in London, scrutinising Assemblies) can provide. Second, functioning administrative structures to run services which really matter to people – like health or education. And third, financial choices, over how to spend money, and how much to spend: that is to say, spending authority plus some tax discretion, most obviously on local taxes, rates and council tax, but maybe also personal taxes as well. But it all has to hang together nationally too: especially in a common understanding of what is guaranteed to citizens all across the country. Obviously, civil and political rights, but also social rights too: guarantees on income support, schooling and healthcare at the point of need and so on. The challenge for the centre is less in identifying the rights – they are largely uncontroversial – but allocating resources equitably to guarantee them.
Decentralising government in England would be good for central government too. It could focus on doing its national job properly, not on micromanaging public services all across the country. Any business, indeed any well-run organisation, understands this: successful chief executives are those who make sure everyone else in the organisation can succeed at their jobs. Boris Johnson is the latest, and perhaps most obvious, example of how not to do that. Aneurin Bevan famously said of the National Health Service that the dropped bedpan in Tredegar would echo in the corridors of Whitehall. Nowadays, with rolling 24-hour news cycle and endemic social media, the racket in ministerial offices is simply unmanageable.
Change has a long way to go. There are not Manchester-like Mayors all over England, and the powers of those that do exist remain narrow. But the times are changing, and the shift in perception caused by the coronavirus crisis may well be irreversible. It has shown not merely the weakness of the present government, but underlying weaknesses in our system of governance. UK Labour politicians have grasped this and have strong political incentives to take the issue forward, but it is interesting also to see senior Conservatives like Sir Graham Brady aligning themselves with regional interests also. Political incentives work both ways.
What’s in it for us?
Why should a sceptical Scot be interested? One way of looking at it is that this change gets to the root of a persistent problem in devolution. Earnest talk about intergovernmental relations – they have never been worse than today – focuses on the behaviour of politicians. Why can’t they work together? Why do devolved leaders grandstand, or UK ministers ride roughshod over them? There has been plenty of bad behaviour, but the underlying structural problem is asymmetry. Today only 15% of the UK population has devolution, and even well-intentioned UK governments understandably focus on the other 85% most of the time. (Not surprising, if they are trying to catch all those dropped bedpans.) A UK government focused on strategic issues and not micromanagement will, however, become a different kind of beast.
The deeper insight, however, is to see this as the start of a much more federal UK: that is to say a country with more geographical distribution of power, not merely to the devolved nations, but real decentralised political power inside England too. The UK will always be a very untypical federation: not four nations with England as one unit, but a federation of both nations and regions, which are also within one nation. That means a different kind of constitutional structure from a typical federal state, but a structure which discharges the same functions.
It will recognise what is shared and must be dealt with for the whole entity together, not just obvious things like international relations and macroeconomic management, but also those common social rights and standards which everyone expects to be guaranteed all across the country. This is complemented by radical decentralisation of everything else, and of course the particular safeguards for the special, protected statuses (which differ one from the other) of the smaller nations inside the larger whole.
Writing such a constitution would not be easy and shouldn’t be done prematurely. But it may be time to start thinking about it. The key question is what kind of society we want to support, and the balance between subsidiarity – local and national empowerment – and solidarity – mutual support of the richer for the poorer areas (see Germany). The institutional questions will no doubt fascinate constitutional lawyers:
• What will be the role of a new second chamber of Parliament in ensuring that national and regional voices are properly heard and interests respected at the centre, as is common in federal states?
• How do we distinguish the UK and English roles of the Commons? (Much more easily when it oversees English regional government.)
For Scots, endlessly split over the unhelpfully binary independence question, change in the UK offers a different option which not just constructive unionists but thoughtful nationalists will be attracted to once we have emerged from the present crisis.
Main image of Andy Burnham learning Manchester had been placed in Tier 3 via PA/Andy King; image of Johnson/Sturgeon via 10 Downing Street oGL v.3
Keith Macdonald says
There are a number of interesting points here and there can be no doubt that the people of England need to look very carefully at the way they are governed. The present sickness of English nationalism shows that there is much wrong.
As far as Scotland is concerned we need to understand that we are approaching a crisis similar to Brexit. If the nationalists (SNP and Greens) retain their majority in the Scottish parliament next May, leaving the UK will be the dominant issue in Scottish politics. It is entirely possible that Boris Johnson will agree to a referendum on the nationalists’ terms and the UK Govt would take a neutral stance in that referendum.
He knows that any proposed action by Scotland he doesn’t like, such as shutting Faslane, can be taken care off in the withdrawal negotiations in which he will hold all the cards. With no confirmatory vote, there would be nothing the Scottish people could do about that. He can also use the negotiations to inflame even further English nationalism to help him defend the 128 seat majority Scottish exclusion would give him.
One of the lessons of Brexit is that withdrawing from a union is a two-stage process. Having a proper vote at the first stage only enables a bait and switch tactic of promising an easy break to win the referendum and then completely changing the nature of the future relationship in the withdrawal negotiations. Having suffered exactly this during Brexit it would be a tragedy if Scotland found itself subject to an even more damaging repeat in regard to the UK.
Peter Ashby says
In terms of Faslane the clock is ticking anyway. Honduras recently became the 50th nation to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Which means in less than 90 days those Trident warheads will all become illegal under international law.
Westminster just nationalised the private company which makes the UK’s nuclear warheads. Why? because suing a govt in the international courts will be harder than suing a private company. So they are already moving in reaction to this.
Post those 90 days someone in the UK, CND perhaps or even a private individual can take the govt to court. Another country, Sweden or Switzerland for eg or maybe Nuclear Free NZ could take the UK to one of the international courts over both the illegality of the weapons but the manifest ongoing failure to abide by the terms of the Nuclear No Proliferation Agreement which the members of agree to disarm.
The UK’s pursuit of a son of Trident series of subs at great national cost is now illegal. It is also pointless, last century’s weapon. The oceans are about to become transparent. Cheap autonomous devices are already being deployed by Russia to monitor and track the Trident subs. If Russia knows where they are they can be destroyed as soon as the opening of their missile hatches is detected (that will be noisy).
Robin Kinross says
“Concern in northern towns and cities about economic disadvantage and alienation from government was successfully mobilised by Brexit campaigners in the 2016 referendum but their real beef was with London, not Brussels.”
Thanks for this – it’s a vital perception: Brexit wasn’t a manifestation of English nationalism, rather it was a cry of unhappiness from England-outside-London (both the impoverished and the deeply comfortable areas). To “take back control” these English hit out at Brussels, but would have been better to hit directly at Westminster, where control now lies. (Anthony Barnett explained this well in his book “Lure of Greatness”.)
“England’s Parliament is Westminster” – yes, but only by default. If England had its own parliament, preferably a newly built one nowhere near Westminster, then the whole conundrum of the UK would be on the way to being solved.
Keith Macdonald says
Can I say that I absolutely agree but time is running out? A nationalist majority in May could create a runaway situation controlled by an extremist few which is largely what happened with Brexit after the referendum.
Denis Mollison says
Much that’s sensible here, but the idea of a federal arrangement at just one level, mixing regions (or even just councils? ) of England with the 3 smaller nations, is far from ideal. As Gallagher points out, the former would be seeking administrative rather than legislative power.
It would be much clearer to go a little further : let the House of Commons continue as an English parliament, overseeing whatever regional arrangement England wants, and replace the House of Lords with a confederal parliament or assembly.
It’s possible such a confederation could be an attractive option if forthcoming elections reaffirm Scotland at least’s right to independence.
Having a range of options, from the “soft independence” of a close confederation (the EU is the obvious, if a rather unfortunate, example) to outright independence might take some of the antagonism out of independence negotiations.
Me Bungo Pony says
All this “federalism” talk presupposes the English would be happy to see their country split into arbitrary regions in a desperate attempt to bind Scotland to the Union, and that Scots would be happy to see their country effectively reduced to the status of “region” solely in the interests of Westminster govt.
I doubt there is much sympathy in England for such a thing. History would seem to bear this out. And for Scotland to be put on an equal footing with the English regions would require the abolition of the Scottish legal system with the imposition of English law across the entire federal structure.
If you think all that will go down without a squeak from the people of Scotland you are seriously deluded. But then, the whole “federal project” is deluded …. in my opinion.
Peter Bruce says
Sorry but I don’t see why ‘thoughtful nationalists’ should find anything of relevance or interest in how devolution within England may develop. Those who believe that the people of Scotland should have the political and economic powers to shape their own future will not think any differently because arrangements within England may change.