Britain is moving, in fits and starts, towards new political equilibrium between London, the devolved nations and the regions
Is Britain becoming more like Europe politically? The question may seem preposterous in the immediate aftermath of Brexit and a tightening grip in England by an ultra-nationalist Conservative party. But perhaps not.
Last month’s elections – Super Thursday – were the first test of how voters in England, Scotland and Wales feel since the start of the pandemic. It was a mixed bag of polls, with something for everyone and a little bit of everything: cities, municipalities, a parliamentary constituency, devolved nations. It was as reliable a mid-term test of the country’s temperature as you’re likely to get.
On the face of it the results seem straightforward: The Tories triumphed (again) deep in Labour’s English heartlands. Working class voters who voted for the Brexit party defected en masse. The pro-independence Scottish nationalists held firm keeping their hopes of an independent Scotland alive. A strongly Welsh-flavoured Labour party prevailed in Wales where it has held office since devolution in 1999.
The results have been interpreted as a near-extinction event for Labour. Tony Blair, in a long article that felt suspiciously like a job application, said the party he led to three consecutive victories, needed tearing down and rebuilding.
For centrists and those on the left, Super Thursday conjured up the spectre of a right-of-centre, populist one-party state. Boris Johnson has had a chaotic first year. Britain has suffered the highest Covid death toll in Europe. But he keeps winning with his signature mix of fist-pumping, big spending, flag-waving, immigrant-bashing nationalism.
But look closely and the picture is more nuanced. And in some ways more compelling. At the granular level of politics, something profound is happening. Old shibboleths and tribal allegiances are being ditched. In others, voters cling to old certainties. We cannot see where it leads yet. But there is a trail of footprints we can follow.
Politics is becoming more fragmented. The local is gaining ground on the national. Britain is moving, in fits and starts, towards new equilibrium between London, the devolved nations and the regions. What was created by design in post-war Europe to encourage democracy by delegating it, could be happening by default in the UK.
If there is a unifying theme, it is that the British voter can most definitely no longer be taken for granted. Brexit is the proximate cause of changing allegiances (but not the only one). Brexit has torn the UK from Europe. It has also opened up deep cracks within the Union. It remains heart-rending and politically flammable. The fire still rages.
Britain, someone once said, is a mystery to itself. Never more so than now. The backdrop to this developing drama is a threadbare Union heading, at the very least, for a painful constitutional crunch – or worse.
Rising nationalism in Scotland, Wales and Ireland pose a serious challenge to old certainties. The SNPs Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh Labour’s Mark Drakeford have emerged as national figures. News bulletins now refer routinely to the four nations, a striking upgrade from devolved administrations. The pandemic whether handled better in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh than in London has given people a taste of what real devolution could be like.
Voters are warming to the idea of leaders who make things happen locally but have the stature to stand up to the centre. A clunky, monolithic system is giving way to something more diverse, more European.
The rise of big city mayors as national political figures untethered to the centre is a significant development. Metro-mayors with a strong, local presence, an independent streak and a national voice will become an increasingly important part of the landscape.
Powerful elected mayors have been a settled feature of the European political landscape since the end of the Second World War. In France, five have risen from a mairie to the Élysée. Willy Brandt vaulted to power and international prominence as mayor of West Berlin during the Cold War. This pattern looks like repeating itself in Britain even if acquiring more powers from Westminster will be like pulling teeth.
Prior to the construction of nation states in the 18th and 19th centuries, cities and city states were the great centres of power, patronage and revenue. They were dominated by big personalities. Their actions did not necessarily flow from a political philosophy. It was, and to a large extent remains, political entrepreneurship in its purest form.
The pandemic has revived this culture, thrusting mayors across Europe and Britain to prominence: Labour’s Andy Burnham, in his ‘King of the North’ mantle, standing up to Johnson’s furlough scheme; Tory Ben Houchen in Tees Valley parlaying Treasury-backed inward investments and freeport status for Teesport into a stunning 73% victory in a working class area with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
The UK constitution, such as it is, is in a state of deep disrepair. There are no systematic way of responding smoothly to the growing desire for localism beyond the existing devolved settlement which was not, it should be said, freely given.
There remains a profound aversion in Westminster and Whitehall to ceding control. Johnson’s image of the Union (“devolution is a disaster”) is not one of a voluntary joining of nations but of post-imperial England as first among (sort of) equals.
The Treasury objects in principle to anything that threatens to loosen its death-grip on the economy. Moving parts of the Treasury to Darlington, the so-called Treasury North campus – is hardly the same as handing more tax-raising powers to metro-mayors.
The longer the centre resists real change, the more Whitehall insists that power devolved is power retained, the thornier the problem will get. Scottish independence may be a bad idea – for Britain, for Europe and probably for Scotland. But it will not be forestalled by just saying ‘No’.
Then there is the fact that Britain remains profoundly and painfully unequal. Big infrastructure projects such as HS2 will not address Britain’s epidemic of rough sleeping or the injustice visited on the struggling disabled or the casualties of a punitive social care system.
To keep winning Johnson will have to deliver on his levelling-up promises. Brexit is not a gift that will keep on giving. Patriotism doesn’t put food on the table. Once the pandemic recedes in the collective consciousness, the challenge will be to find ways of bridging the inequality gap that cements the union as opposed to driving it further apart.
Squeezed out of Scotland and Wales and with a vanishingly thin presence in Northern Ireland, the Tories are throwing their all into establishing a permanent hegemony in England. It may, ironically, turn out to be the party’s last redoubt.
Politics in Britain is not, as some would have it, moribund. Brexit makes the point. But it is stuck in a rut, suffocated by a first past the post electoral system (FPTP) that consistently delivers majority governments voted in by a minority of voters. This has led, increasingly, to alienation, extremism and wild swings in policy that leave our institutions, our health service and our schools drained.
The UK’s best chance of stability is to heed the EU’s motto Unity in Diversity: more democracy; a fairer proportional voting system that makes people feel that their votes count; greater devolution and a genuine commitment to help local communities shape their own lives.
This may also be the union’s best chance of staying intact.
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