Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Business
  2. Economics
17 March 2021

How to remake Britain: We are entering the age of experimentation

Boris Johnson has bet on a “green industrial revolution” as the avenue for Union-wide economic transformation. Will it pay off?

By Helen Thompson

Britain needs democratic renewal. Roberto Unger is right to argue that such a project can lead nowhere without confronting constitutional questions. But Britain’s constitutional crisis is deeper and more intractable than he recognises. There are, for the short term at least, no alternative constitutional arrangements that are likely to keep Britain from breaking apart.

Britain’s future relationship with the European Union is one part of the problem. As long as there is a significant minority in Britain who hope for something like associate EU membership, any post-Brexit constitutional settlement will have at best provisional legitimacy. Outside Scotland, the argument for a stronger relationship with the EU is usually cast in economic terms. But since the EU treats participation in the Single Market as a claim to some political authority, any closer economic relationship will necessarily have consequences with respect to how the UK is governed.

More immediately, the constitutional crisis is a matter of the Anglo-Scottish Union. This Union has always been more precarious than post-Whiggish takes on British history have allowed. It was a politically deft construction when it was established in 1707 because it allowed Scotland to retain legal and religious autonomy and England its complex constitutional heritage while excluding a political expression of either Scottish or English nationhood. But by accommodating an explicitly democratic expression of Scottish nationhood in a national parliament, devolution under New Labour in 1999 destabilised the Union, incentivising a political version of English nationhood that inflames Scottish nationalist anger towards Westminster.

Mantras about decentralisation and “radical devolution, including within England” cannot escape the fundamental predicament that emerged when the parliamentary Union was ended in 1999 on such asymmetrical terms. Until a way is found to overcome the present parliamentary disunion, there will be intense conflict between the nations within British politics and little prospect of collective British purpose.

[see also: The system cannot hold]

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Britain’s economic problems will reinforce those divisions. The lesson that the Conservatives learned from the 2019 general election was that a post-Brexit renewal must reshape Britain’s economic geography. But when the party’s electoral future is tied to votes in the small towns of the north and the Midlands, it is unclear whether it is Britain or England’s economic geography that the Conservatives wish to change.

Content from our partners
The cost-of-living crisis is hitting small businesses – Liz Truss must act
How industry is key for net zero
How to ensure net zero brings good growth and green jobs

Over the past few months, Boris Johnson has bet on what he has called a “green industrial revolution” as the avenue for Union-wide economic transformation. In envisaging a world in which Britain becomes the Saudi Arabia of wind power, Johnson appears to believe that the Union can be saved by a British project uniting the island’s coasts in an offshore energy capacity. But whatever the pay-off for the British economy would be from a manufacturing and construction renaissance, the move away from fossil fuels is unlikely to convince those living outside Britain’s large cities that any economic reform will be to their advantage.

Moreover, since the constitutional legitimacy of the British state is insecure, there will be political clashes about who should decide on the allocation of state resources to energy and other investment projects. In those policy areas where sovereignty is returning from the EU, such as state aid, the restored economic powers will only sharpen the conflicts between the national parliaments about who should exercise them. Since under the present constitutional arrangements these powers cannot be devolved to equivalent political bodies across the Union, the freedom for decentralisation is constrained.

There are no self-evident answers on the form democratic renewal in Britain can take. But the magnitude of what lies ahead means Britain’s age of complacency has ended and a democratic contest over the constitution and policy experimentation is beginning.

This article is from our series on the UK’s post-Brexit future.

This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold