In these pages over the past few months, I’ve written about range of issues that the pandemic has exposed, whether that’s health inequalities, how undervalued and underpaid many of our key workers were prior to the crisis of the difficulties of people living in social isolation. Another of these – and one that has been of particularly noticeable over the past week or so – is the great unanswered question of English devolution.
We all know that where Scotland and Wales both have Parliaments and Northern Ireland has its Assembly, England has nothing. Attempts by John Prescott to bring in English regional assemblies were halted by an unsuccessful referendum in the North East and so we instead have a very unbalanced hodgepodge of devolution, where some areas have deals and some don’t.
David Cameron and George Osborne’s plan to revitalise English regions was based around the “Northern Powerhouse” and the “Midlands Engine”. These were always a bit vague as concepts – they’re still officially part of Government policy but they seem to forget about them for months on end. Earlier this year, Boris Johnson scrapped the role of Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and instead gave the responsibilities to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, MP for that great northern constituency of… Welwyn-Hatfield in Hertfordshire.
The Cameron-Osborne approach to devolution was, of course, conceived in a very different political era, before both Brexit and Covid. Powerful mayors driving ambitious plans to level up local economies and secure investment were key to this and it was seen, at least in part, as an answer to the West Lothian Question – about voting in Parliament by MPs from outside England on matters relating just to England.
For me, Covid has highlighted many of devolution’s strengths. We see different administrations taking different approaches to suit their areas; Northern Ireland and Wales are implementing circuit breaks and Nicola Sturgeon has far more trust in her approach to the crisis than Boris Johnson has. Here in Greater Manchester, we’ve seen metro mayor Andy Burnham really stand up for our city region – alongside council leaders and MPs.
However, it has also highlighted some real weaknesses. There have been mixed messages across the UK and this has caused a great deal of confusion (not helped by a national media that tends not to understand politics outside Westminster). More crucially, it has highlighted that ultimately English regions have very few powers (unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) against an over-centralised Government.
When regions – like Greater Manchester – have stood up for themselves, the Government have not liked it one bit and they’re likely now to be very sceptical at devolving anything more. This is the wrong approach – stronger regions will also strengthen our nation as a whole. The Tories should embrace this rather than run away from it.