Devolution in the UK is a mess. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have different arrangements, while about one-third of the English are governed by combined authorities, but two-thirds are not. To citizens, this crazy patchwork confuses lines of responsibility and accountability, undermining democracy.
The Conservatives’ electoral successes go hand in hand with Westminster sovereignty
In England, much devolution is really delegation, with local government having little scope for independent action. Critically, almost all of its income comes from Whitehall. This is very different to arrangements in most western countries. This intersects with a second major problem: significant regional inequality in the UK. London is Europe’s richest region, but in the 2010s the UK had six of northern Europe’s 10 poorest regions. Today, central government sees the first of these two big problems largely in terms of securing or saving the union, and the second in terms of levelling up. As a historian, I’m interested in how we have got here. But does the past suggest some ways ahead?
The UK has rarely had to refashion its constitution and when it has done so, as with the partition of Ireland in 1921 and Brexit, it has been politically excruciating. The Second World War forced constitutional change on significant parts of Europe, but not the UK. Britain’s parishes and counties have a rich history but that of its regions is much vaguer, while formal provinces were not invented as they were for Ireland. Critically, anti-federalism has a deep historical tap root in England, in both the Labour and the Conservative parties. The UK constitution is, consequently, highly political, without fundamental laws, containing quasi-federal elements granted reluctantly rather than enthusiastically by Westminster. The Blair government of 1997 recognised the problem and had a large enough majority to do even more than it did, but fluffed its lines in England after running up against Dominic Cummings in the North East.
Johnson’s government of 2019 is also in a strong position to do something significant, though unlike 1997 the cries for Scottish independence are now much stronger. Its approach is mainly focused on tackling regional inequality, addressing the constitutional muddle mainly through some rebranding. But its remedies, trying to improve the access of disadvantaged individuals to education and skills, along with some decentralisation of government jobs and projects such as HS2, are unlikely to make enough difference.
In a sense, we have been here before. Regional planning was a vital part of the post-1945 order, attempting to address the deadly crawl of deindustrialisation. New towns and regional development boards helped to redistribute the population and jobs away from London – its population declined for several decades – and saw some places, like the Scottish Highlands and Islands, reinvent themselves. This did not always go well and the Thatcher government of 1979 was against such approaches, strongly preferring market forces to government action. Much regional economic planning was abolished or downgraded.
Circumstances are now too different to simply restore the pre-Thatcher order here. Two big changes will help. First, devolution needs to be made more consistent across the UK. The Good Friday Agreement places some limits on this in Northern Ireland but there is a lot of clearing up that can be done. In particular, there needs to be a focus on the “English Question”, the weakness of its constitutional position and the incoherence of its local government arrangements. Second, central government needs to give much greater financial independence to devolved authorities, including in England. This will require apportioning money more rationally than currently. Only then will devolution be meaningful. Without that, there will remain too much interest-group and weak pork-barrel politics at Westminster.
Such changes will not happen soon. The Conservative Party’s frequent electoral successes have gone hand in hand with a strong attachment to the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament and a suspicion of devolution. Why should it change? Moreover, the British system does not encourage politicians to step back and look structurally at the domestic order. Johnson, however, is sufficiently versed in the ancient history of the decline and fall of nations perhaps to see that the current situation is unsustainable. But I will not hold my breath while waiting for the arrival of proper devolution.
Julian Hoppit is professor of British history at University College London. His book The Dreadful Monster and its Poor Relations: Taxing, Spending and the United Kingdom, 1707-2021 is published by Allen Lane
Photo: Burnham advocates for Greater Manchester while neighbouring counties have no devolution deal: a “crazy patchwork” that undermines democracy, says Hoppit. (James Veysey/Shutterstock)