By Chaminda Jayanetti
One solution: devolution! Britain's political and media class is in the midst of a post-Brexit panic attack. Politicians, journalists and wonks queue up to express Very Real Concerns about the Very Real Concerns of what is generally referred to as 'Not London' – a miasmic mass of cities, towns and shires classified entirely by what they are not. The collapse of Labour's so-called 'red wall' at the general election simply intensified it.
The prescribed solution is always devolution. It is about the only unifying mantra in British politics, the prefab answer to a nation's disenchantment. It will reduce England's regional disparities. It will heal its divisions. It will solve the productivity puzzle. It will fix transport, health, education, employment. We are weeks away from devolution sending mankind to Mars and bringing peace to the Middle East.
Much of this is just virtue signalling – and based on all manner of misconceptions. England's regional debate casts national government as 'London'. But MPs are elected by their constituents across the country, often come from those constituencies, mostly live in those constituencies when parliament isn't sitting, and hold constituency surgeries where people come to them with their problems and concerns. They have close links to constituency parties and councillors.
This is not a 'London' government. It's the national government, based in London. It is collective government, where representatives drawn proportionately from across the UK come together to make collective decisions for the whole country.
There is a caveat. Civil servants and ministerial advisers are primarily based in London. They do not have MPs' local constituency connections. If advisers and senior civil servants wield more influence than MPs in decision-making, some of that collectiveness and representativeness is lost. And if those advisers and civil servants are drawn from narrow socioeconomic and professional backgrounds, they are going to be out of touch with the country no matter where they are based. (Dominic Cummings, since you ask, went to private school and Oxford.)
But if England is to pursue devolution, it has to come from a place of reality – not fantasy, virtue signalling or 'truthiness'.
First and foremost, there is no evidence it will reduce populism or political alienation. The US, France, Spain, Italy, Germany – all are more decentralised than England, yet all are riven with some combination of extremism, separatism and alienation. That devolution is proposed as the solution to this is laughable.
Secondly, in the absence of strongly politicised national or regional identities, this is primarily a project by the political class, not one driven by public demand. Perceptions that the country is biased towards London do not automatically equate to demands for devolution. Voters in the North East overwhelmingly rejected devolution in 2004 and the creation of 'metro mayors' was not put to a public vote as a result. Demands for geographic redistribution of resources away from London are widespread, but demands for devolution come mostly from the political class and its hinterland. Devolution is a process, not an outcome. People want outcomes.
All this does not mean we should reject devolution. It means we have to stop pretending devolution is what too many of its advocates have turned it into, or allowed it to become – a magic bullet, a panacea, an off-the-shelf answer, an emblem of virtuous concern, a sign that you 'get it'.
Key questions need to be answered. First, what powers do you devolve? Public transport, economic development and adult skills are fairly uncontroversial – national government has a patchy record here.
Health is different. Fears of a postcode lottery are not unfounded – local NHS bodies already set their own criteria for certain procedures, leading to big regional variations in who can get a hip replacement and when.
But evidence from Spain suggests devolution can actually reduce regional variations in health and education spending, by encouraging poorer performers to 'level up' and enabling policy experimentation in different regions.
However, health and education are common public priorities. Welfare is not. And devolving welfare policy in Canada and the US has led to a race to the bottom, with tighter restrictions and reduced payments, such that Canadian anti-poverty campaigners now call for nationwide eligibility standards.
What areas do you devolve to? Different devolved powers suit different types of area – public transport suits regions and city-regions, but these can overlook the economic development of smaller towns. Towns themselves, however, may have limited capacity to run complex services. Meanwhile, creating endless new layers of government will result in a stodgy porridge of politicians.
One of the biggest issues surrounds finance. Do you leave local areas to raise their own money for their own services? This would favour wealthier areas, with richer residents and fewer needs, over poorer ones. The way around this is to take some of those local taxes and redistribute them to poorer areas – which is simply recreating the way things work already. And if poorer regions start spending more with redistributed money, will richer areas, whose taxpayers are funding this, revolt?
Focusing on devolution has obscured critical issues facing Britain. Why has the Brexit mantra of 'take back control' been interpreted as meaning greater control for regions but not individuals? Centrists decry Corbynism, but the latter at least grasped the need for greater social and economic rights – something ignored by devolution fetishists. Why would a decision that left someone struggling to stay afloat be more legitimate just because it was made locally? Why would the resulting hardship and alienation be any less?
Any devolution of social policy must be backed by redistributive funding from the centre and the maintenance of nationally set rights and entitlements – if areas want to go above these standards they can raise local taxes, but they must not fall below. Devolution might then avoid a race to the bottom, allow local government to veto cuts in national standards, and protect individual socioeconomic rights.
Austerity was not just imposed by the elite – it was backed by public demand. But someone with cataracts has the same needs, be they in London or Darlington. A child with autism deserves the necessary educational support, be they in Cumbria or Dorset. Someone living below the breadline needs to live above the breadline in Surrey as much as in Hull.
When a politician's response to every question is 'devolution', all they are doing is devolving the answers.
Chaminda Jayanetti is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter here.
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