Two surprises in the past week – a journey to Manchester and a leaked directive from a cabinet minister – push to the same conclusion, underpinned by this month’s local elections. It isn’t a startling one, at least for NS readers, but it is elbowing its way up the agenda: Westminster is now utterly incapable of fixing inequality. A new deal for non-metropolitan England should be at the heart of the next general election.
I mean more than levelling up, crucial though that is. I mean a radical redistribution of power – hence vigour, hence self-confidence – away from London. We have been talking about it forever. But nothing happens. It’s time.
For at least a lifetime, constitutional reform has been discussed by the wrong people, sometimes including the younger me. It excited tangle-haired, pamphlet-scribbling political nerds and corduroy-shanked historians, with a few disaffected MPs around them. Books. Fringe meetings. But not the right people. Not ever the voters. Set “the system” beside the NHS, the cost of living, immigration… and the right people, the people for whom the system exists, don’t give a monkey’s.
That’s been so for more than a century in England. The Edwardians got hot under the collar about the need to scupper the House of Lords, and about the voting system, and the distribution of power around the UK. Elsewhere, it was a different story. The Scottish devolution movement and the Northern Ireland peace process energised tens of thousands. In England, however, constitutional change became a fringe issue, placed somewhere between the land tax and organic apple stalls at West Country liberal conferences. Do you remember the north-east English devolution referendum of 2004? Nope? Nor do 999 in 1,000.
My journey to Manchester was for LBC, to interview Labour’s Andy Burnham, as well as the Tory mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen. Burnham was flaming with energy about the need to rewire the whole country, get rid of the Lords, change the voting system, and embrace a new economic and tax system based on wealth and land rather than incomes.
But Houchen and Jim O’Neill, the crossbencher who served as a Treasury minister under David Cameron and was one of the key proponents of the Northern Powerhouse, both argued the case for varied regional taxation – something that horrifies the Treasury today – and more representation for the regions in parliament. The ideas are not identical across the party spectrum, but the hunger for change is. I went home buzzing.
The second “surprise” was a leaked directive from Michael Gove, the cabinet minister in charge of levelling up, to the Speaker of the House of Lords. Gove informed him that when the ornate chamber had to be vacated for the huge programme of rebuilding the Palace needs, the peers must not just shuffle down the road to a Westminster conference centre. They should up silver sticks and hie themselves to Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley, Edinburgh, Sunderland, Plymouth, Wolverhampton or York instead.
Well, absolutely right. Although it is impossible to work at Westminster for long without developing a sentimental attachment to the lurid fake-medieval architecture and the uniquely musty atmosphere, lightly scented with broth and halitosis, a forced march of the buffers north would probably save many frail lives. The building, I’m told by a friendly peer, is now incredibly dangerous. There are small fires breaking out all the time. “It won’t be long before there is a real, catastrophic conflagration.” Sceptical as I am about the second chamber, the mass immolation of what’s left of the aristocracy would be an excessive solution.
But, much more importantly, it’s almost impossible to work for long in the Palace of Westminster without succumbing to a kind of groupthink. Our unusually centralised political system has failed most of England, has failed Scotland, has failed Wales, and is failing Northern Ireland as well. Moving parliamentarians isn’t enough.
The failure of the current system is one of the unavoidable conclusions of the 2019 general election, and before that of the rise of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, never mind the current brouhaha in Belfast.
Unionists in Scotland would rightly point in turn to the failures of the SNP-Green government. But unhealthy SNP dominance is the result of Tory dominance in England, and the Brexit vote. It has been created by winner-takes-all Westminster parliamentary absolutism. Similarly, the struggle over the protocol at Stormont is the direct consequence of the Brexit deal struck by Westminster.
And the longer history of British democracy has never been about the dominance of Westminster thinking. Whether it was Joseph Chamberlain and the municipal Liberal radicalism of Birmingham, or the Chartists, or the suffragettes, or Manchester, or the Irish Home Rule disruptors, Westminster was most alive when it was flushed with intellectual energy from elsewhere in these islands. It wasn’t always fusty. It wasn’t always somnolent. The very building, like a Plantagenet theme park, tells an untrue story about historical continuity.
We are close to a real chance for reshaping. It is being caused not by pamphlets or seminars, but the right people, the voters. The local election results rammed home the message that neither the Conservatives nor Labour any longer stretch across the UK.
The English Tories are now having to fight on two flanks. The party is retreating at speed not just in Scotland but now in Wales as well; it has been hammered in London. Labour has largely failed to take back the swathes of the Midlands and northern England that it lost in 2019, and it is still stuck in Scotland. Smaller parties, from the Liberal Democrats to the Greens and Sinn Féin, did better. Crucially, polling suggests that if a general election was held tomorrow, the result would be a hung parliament.
As I wrote in these pages last week, Conservative strategists are already planning to warn voters against enabling a “chaotic” coalition of the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems, which would go on to rewrite the constitution of the country. And this from the party that has brought us the chaos of Brexit.
But I agree to this extent: gazing at the incomplete and scattered picture painted by the local elections, we can see the dim shape of an unfamiliar politics ahead. Brexit has brought us not the single, irresistible bass voice of a national community reborn, as the Johnsons and Rees-Moggs of this world hoped, but a babble of competing voices. Not a politics based on class and ideology, but increasingly on geographical proximity and, in particular, on resentment against London and the concentration of power and wealth in the south-east of England.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland the remorseless churn of demography looks fatal in the longer term for the UK. The younger the cohort, the less affection there is for Britishness. Changes in Northern Ireland encourage those in Scotland, and vice versa. In their tone, personal stories and constitutional outlook, Nicola Sturgeon and Michelle O’Neill chime.
The great missing piece of the jigsaw is England. Prickly English hostility to the “great wen” of festering London arrogance has never died, and the dissolution of the wider Union would worsen the imbalance inside England, not resolve it. The opposition must think about alternative models. It should take another look at Asquith’s 1912 “Home Rule all round”, a different shape for a modern federal Britain, which was never realised. It should be picking up the boldest of Tory ideas about local regeneration and negotiate with the other opposition parties to build a different kind of politics.
It must. It should. But we all know it won’t unless the voters force the pace. I hope they do, before that fire breaks out.
[See also: What if Keir Starmer’s gamble backfires?]
This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato