There is a hardening consensus that the United Kingdom, as it currently exists, could be finished. Yet the potential impact of the break-up of the UK on England has received scant attention. Widely reported polling by the Sunday Times found a clear majority of UK voters now believe not only that Scottish independence will happen within the next decade, but that Irish unification will happen, too. Without some significant intervention, this majority will likely be proved right.
Northern Ireland, as the former chancellor George Osborne is only the latest to observe, already has one foot out of the door, with the Sea border between the north of Ireland and the rest of the UK already in operation. Based on current polling across the UK, few would regret its departure, many would see it as the correction of a historic injustice and the largest number would be indifferent.
Scotland’s potential exit is of a different order, as the SNP’s likely majority in the Scottish elections, expected in May, will hasten the independence question.
But the unfolding drama of the constitutional question north of the border has obscured its backwash to the south. The question of England’s governance has been latent for at least as long as Scotland and Wales have enjoyed their own forms of devolution. One of New Labour’s slow-burn failures was its inability to create a viable form of devolved government for England, with the failed North East Regional Assembly referendum in 2004 – in a campaign assisted by a young Dominic Cummings – ending discussion of the matter in Westminster for almost a decade.
It is not hard to see why the plans were rejected: the proposed regional assemblies had limited powers, and those they did have were narrowly focused on the Westminster government’s economic goals. Not that Westminster cared – Tony Blair himself thought the assemblies were “stupid”. For voters in the north-east, there was little reason to create another layer of politicians and bureaucrats if they weren’t going to be truly empowered.
But this left the UK lopsided. Both Scotland and Wales had alternative sources of representation and authority and, although the powers of the two “devolved administrations” were constrained, they were meaningful and plausibly shaped events and outcomes.
England, however, had no national level representation separate from the UK parliament. As the major component of a multinational state, governing a vast land empire with limited claims to democratic legitimacy, the comparative weakness of England’s government did not matter, since democratic legitimacy itself was a far weaker source of authority. In any case, from at least the mid-19th century, the newer urban areas had developed their own distinctive forms of municipal administration, with powerful local figures such as the Birmingham mayor Joseph Chamberlain able to establish a national presence from a base outside of the capital.
But with the empire gone, local authority powers severely curtailed and the Westminster parliament no longer the sole source of democratic, national authority inside the multinational UK, the weakness of England’s representation has become an undeclared tension inside the system.
This wouldn’t matter so much if the bias of the Westminster government against the rest of England weren’t so glaring. London receives more than double the government investment per head of the east Midlands, for example. Financial institutions headquartered in the capital have been similarly reluctant to invest in small businesses elsewhere, with 60 per cent of small business investment finance going to the 19 per cent of small firms resident in London. And a financial crisis that detonated in the City of London has, through austerity, inflicted its costs across the rest of the country.
The tension has now erupted in two moments over the last five years. The first was Brexit. Every English region outside of London voted to leave the EU, in a striking rejection of the Westminster consensus. This revolt of the regions has broken the most important of the UK’s external relationships.
Covid-19 is now breaking its internal settlement. The pandemic has seriously undermined Westminster’s authority, as the rise in support for Scottish – and Welsh – independence indicates. But in England, whatever George Osborne intended when he established elected mayors – and the text of the “devolution deals” makes clear that power was supposed to remain firmly with the Treasury – the presence of authoritative regional voices during the pandemic (Manchester’s Andy Burnham foremost among them) has brought the question of English representation into its sharpest relief yet. Covid-19 has meant that the England of the regions is beginning to find a voice, and an identity.
This is one reason why the left needs to put discussion of “progressive patriotism”, or the handwringing debates about “What Englishness Is”, to one side. The problem to be solved is being posed by the English regions, and it is the problem of representation and democracy. Similarly, talk of a British identity or a “progressive union” between the four nations is unlikely to resolve the issue.
A bold response to these tensions would involve the Westminster state pushing for a radical, geographical redistribution of power within England, handing greater powers to the existing combined authorities and pushing a unification of local authorities across the rest of the country. The former UK local government minister Simon Clarke hinted at such a course in a speech, now mysteriously deleted from the ministry’s website, shortly before he resigned.
But there is an opportunity here, too, to break with the model of EU regional development, and that which has been followed by successive UK governments. The EU’s state aid rules were always an issue in the UK not because of Brussels – whose writ, in practice, never ran all that far against large and determined member states – but because of British civil servants’ overzealous observance of them. The UK, as an EU member, consistently underperformed on the use of state aid, with just 0.3 per cent of GDP being spent by the government, compared to 1.5 per cent in Germany. It will still be a challenge to wean key economic departments off the neoliberal Kool Aid, but at least state aid rules can no longer function as an excuse for inaction. A determined national government could set the pace here.
These interventions are potentially most striking at a regional level. Plans for free ports aside – of which the Chancellor Rishi Sunak is a known fan, having praised them in a 2016 pamphlet – there is now a chance to develop distinctive regional institutions that are able to intervene at the scale needed to radically transform regional economic outcomes. Regional development banks, offering cheap, long-term credit to small businesses otherwise starved of investment funds, and setting their own priorities for industrial strategy, are a serious option.
Breaking the dependency of the English regions on decisions taken in either Westminster or the City of London is crucial. Until the question of English representation is addressed, there will be no solution to the United Kingdom’s constitutional woes.