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14 October 2020

Leader: The revolt of the north

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed England’s political fragmentation and the failures of devolution, with northern politicians revolting against Westminster. 

By New Statesman

In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic there was a gathering sense of national solidarity. After years of visceral and sometimes toxic political debate, the peoples of these islands were united against the crisis.

Yet this feeling of common purpose was lost. As public trust in Boris Johnson’s government declined, the nations and regions of the United Kingdom have sought to take back control from Westminster.

This is most visibly the case in Scotland, where support for independence has reached record levels. Nicola Sturgeon has used the crisis to her advantage by diverging from London and framing herself as the head of an independent nation in waiting. Should the SNP win an overall majority at next year’s Scottish election, it will have an unarguable mandate for a second referendum.

But the crisis has also exposed England’s political fragmentation and the failures of devolution. As new local lockdowns have been imposed, northern politicians such as Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, and Liverpool’s metro mayor, Steve Rotheram, have revolted against Westminster. Their disdain is understandable: Mr Johnson’s government, which presided over the highest reported excess death toll in Europe, has never appeared equal to the pandemic. England is one of the Western world’s most centralised countries, and it has retained the power to impose diktats from Whitehall. But the centre cannot hold: things fall apart.

After the Conservatives’ election triumph in 2019, Mr Johnson vowed to pay special heed to voters in the Red Wall seats who gifted the Tories their largest majority since 1987. But today regional leaders, including the Conservative West Midlands mayor, Andy Street, complain of an absence of consultation over rule changes, which they frequently first learn of through leaks to the media. As Mr Street noted, “The West Midlands, with an average infection of 123 per 100,000, is now in the same tier as Manchester, which has an average infection rate of more than 550 per 100,000.”

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In areas where hospitality businesses are forced to close because of lockdowns, furloughed workers will only receive two-thirds of their previous earnings (rather than the original 80 per cent). Those who lose their jobs will be left dependent on Universal Credit, which guarantees the median single worker without children only 30 per cent of their former income (a level that will fall to 23 per cent if planned cuts proceed).

All lockdowns are policy failures. Their cost to the economy, societal well-being, people’s mental health and children’s education is huge. The government was supposed to use the first lockdown to establish a functional test, trace and isolate system – but it has failed to do so.

As a result, the pandemic risks intensifying pre-existing regional divides. “Disease levels in the north, and certainly in the north-west, never dropped as far in the summer as they did in the south,” the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van Tam, said on 12 October. In Mr Burnham’s mayoral region in July, Covid-19 rates were four times as high as they were in London. Yet all regions nevertheless reopened at the same pace – and were left dependent on Mr Johnson’s ramshackle government. These failings expose an overcentralised state. Only now has the government finally granted local authorities and metro mayors a role in managing the contact tracing system. To date, in common with so many other state functions, the job has been outsourced to faceless private companies.

Local authorities, hollowed out by a decade of austerity, and underpowered regional politicians lack the means to confront Covid-19. Since 2009-10, as the think tank IPPR North calculated, public spending has fallen by £6.3bn in real terms in the north of England – more than in any other UK region – but risen by £3.2bn in the south-east and south-west. 

The pandemic has served as an X-ray of the dilapidated British state: revealing its defects and limitations. The need for a new constitutional settlement is as necessary as it is inevitable.

This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?