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