Twenty-five years ago, when new institutions of national government were created in Scotland and Wales, they reflected the widely held view that the Welsh and Scots should have more control over their economies, aspects of welfare provision and key public services. Yet at that time, hardly anyone thought devolution might be applied to England – despite it being the largest, wealthiest and most populated part of the UK.
Today, things look rather different. The notion of English devolution has morphed from being of interest only to constitutional experts to being a preoccupation of Britain’s politicians as we approach the next general election – many of whom have lost confidence in the capacity of central government to tackle the country’s most deeply-rooted problems.
A historic £4.2bn devolution deal, which will bring together seven councils under an elected mayor of the North East in May 2024, is the latest attempt to address some of the deep geographical inequalities that disfigure and disenfranchise large areas of England.
Meanwhile, much of English local government is experiencing immense financial pressures, with large councils such as Birmingham and Nottingham declaring themselves at risk of bankruptcy while others teeter on the edge of a financial cliff. In many parts of England, it is increasingly unclear who local residents should hold accountable for public service provision – in part due to the amount of outsourcing to the private sector that has become routine.
“Take Back Control” was the slogan of the Vote Leave campaign leading up to the Brexit referendum of September 2016. It may not be a coincidence that the country which played the key arithmetical role in determining its outcome – England – was the only one where devolution had not been introduced, and where many non-metropolitan residents felt their views and interests counted for little in the citadels of democratic government.
Since then, more years of political turbulence, economic shocks intensified by the COVID pandemic, and the government’s failure to “level up” as pledged, have combined to erode the allegiance and goodwill of many of its citizens. What this means for the future of a UK union-state model that has rested, to a considerable degree, upon English assent is likely to become one of the key political – and constitutional – issues of our time.
What is English devolution for?
In fact, the idea of establishing a new layer of government between Whitehall and England’s complicated network of local councils has engaged the attention of successive governments since the 1960s. But questions about the form, scope and functions of this “middle” layer gradually turned into a party-political football, with governments of different colours inclined to reverse the arrangements put in place by their predecessor. And the wider democratic ambition hinted at by the term “devolution” was largely absent from these reforms.
Whereas in Scotland and Wales, devolution was long ago couched in terms of democratic advance and national self-determination, in England it was largely regarded as a mere extension of central government’s approach to regional policy-making – and even the advent of elected “metro mayors” did little to change this view. But now, politicians from both main political parties have come to believe in a new, sub-national model that can be badged as England’s own version of devolution.
A spate of deals involving the voluntary combining of different councils were announced in 2022, including for North Yorkshire, the East Midlands and the North East, and again in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s 2023 autumn statement for Lancashire, Greater Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire. And a report by Labour’s Commission on the UK’s Future, chaired by former prime minister Gordon Brown, signalled that the party should extend the current government’s programme of English devolution.
This idea lay at the heart of Boris Johnson’s ambitious programme while he was prime minister for addressing the deep disparities in productivity and social outcomes that exist in England, to which he gave the grand but elusive title “levelling up”. This plan – set out in a lengthy white paper in February 2022 – seems, for the most part, to have fallen by the wayside now that Johnson has left the political stage. But it still marked an important staging post in the journey of the once-niche idea of English devolution. Both main political parties have signed up to this principle and have indicated they will create more devolved authorities should they win the next general election.
Advocates sometimes point to an extensive – though hotly contested – body of research on the positive consequences for local economies of taking policy decisions at levels closer to the people they affect. One influential theoretical support for this idea highlights what economists call the “tacit knowledge” about a place, which is often vital to understanding the particular policies and initiatives that are likely to yield most benefit there.
What can be said with more confidence is that a lot hinges on the quality of the institutions that are created, and how well funded they are.
Others argue that a more decentralised system of political authority is more likely to win the allegiance of, and secure more engagement from, people throughout England – in a context where trust in the UK’s political class has plummeted, where MPs are less popular than local councillors, and where there is widespread disenchantment with the perceived bias of central government towards London and the south-east.
However, to what extent does the record of England’s existing “metro mayors” support this case?
‘King of the north’
When the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, staged an impromptu press conference in the street outside Manchester town hall to protest against the local lockdown that the UK government wanted to introduce in the north-west of England in October 2020, his stance received considerable local support – to the extent that he briefly acquired the nickname “king of the north”. Since his election as mayor in May 2017, Burnham has led a number of high-profile initiatives on issues such as homelessness, and overseen the integration of health and local social care services.
Similarly, it is unlikely that a backbench MP would have been able to wrest concessions from a prime minister as did the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, after he made public his opposition to Rishi Sunak’s decision to cancel the HS2 rail project in September 2023.
While the responsibilities held by England’s metro mayors are, by international standards, pretty limited, they are at times able to deploy what political scientists term the “soft power” that comes from being the acknowledged leader of, and voice for, a locality. They also tend to be more independent of their own party machines than MPs are, going out of their way, when it suits them, to dissent from their parties’ London-based leaderships.
But it would be unwise to get too starry-eyed about a system that relies so heavily on soft power rather than the allocation of formal responsibilities. The absence of an elected legislature tasked with scrutinising and legitimating the work of these leaders – who are typically, and often not very effectively, held to account by local council leaders – is a significant further constraint on their ability to act as democratically legitimate changemakers.
This is very different to the model established in London, which had its own government restored by the first government of Tony Blair in 1999 following a city-wide referendum. The Greater London Authority is made up of elected representatives whose job it is to scrutinise the elected mayor, currently Sadiq Khan, and his administration.
In contrast, metro mayors elsewhere in England – tasked with delivering policies and overseeing funding allocations in areas of priority set by central government – are typically frustrated by the limits imposed on their own agency. Nor do they have the fiscal tools, both in terms of raising revenue and borrowing against financial assets, that are typical of many city and regional governments outside the UK.
The idea of having mini-parliaments across England’s regions, on a par with the legislatures established in Scotland and Wales, was dealt a fatal blow in 2004. During the course of the Blair governments, his long-time deputy prime minister, John Prescott, had pressed for the gradual conversion of the English regional development agencies Labour had created into a form of elected regional administration. But this died a very public death when voters in the north-east overwhelmingly rejected the idea – despite having been selected as the region most likely to support it.
Twenty years on, the suite of new city-regional authorities being created risks deepening the existing cleavage between England’s major cities and those parts of the country without a large urban metropole. Indeed, some of the devolution agreements recently announced had been stalled for years by the unwillingness of particular authorities to participate in these initiatives. The deal encompassing the cities of the north-east, for example, was held up for years by the refusal of Durham County Council to join its larger urban neighbours.
The idea that establishing leadership at the level of a large city and its surrounding hinterland can improve the quality of democratic life, and create a more responsive layer of government, remains appealing for many, despite the unsteady emergence of this model in England.
However, amid attempts by UK politicians and administrators to present this as equivalent to the clearer and more robust forms of governance introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, another important question has emerged. Namely, whether the English have come to feel some jealousy and suspicion about these new forms of government established outside England – and less enthusiasm for the union as a whole.
A national grievance?
The idea that England and the English need to be recognised as a distinct national entities within a multi-national union has more popular resonance in an era when debates over sovereignty, national identity and self-determination have become integral to political life
For some, this imperative arises from the belief that changes associated with devolution elsewhere have served to put the English majority at a disadvantage. Some express this in financial terms, arguing that England’s taxpayers have been funding the more generous per-capita settlements awarded to Northern Ireland and Scotland. Others see it as a reflection of the revealed preference of the British political establishment to appease those living in these areas, by awarding their inhabitants additional political rights while neglecting the inhabitants of England’s non-metropolitan areas.
Following the establishment of new parliaments in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff, and the absence of any such model for England, the idea that these reforms have created an imbalance which puts the largest part of the UK at a disadvantage has become a familiar political sentiment. This was particularly salient when the ability of MPs sitting in Scottish and Welsh seats to vote on contentious legislative proposals that applied only to England became a controversial political issue – as in 2004, when the Blair government introduced controversial legislation requiring students at English universities to pay some of their tuition costs.
The constitutional problem created by this imbalance had been aired in parliament by a number of MPs and members of the House of Lords when devolution was first introduced in the late 1990s. Some argued that one of the unintended effects of these changes might be to engender a feeling of national grievance – perhaps even a reactive nationalism – among the English. But for the most part, this prospect was ignored or scoffed at by politicians from both main political parties.
Soon after the new parliaments were established, however, the question of how reforms elsewhere would affect England – and whether it too needed a mechanism to signal the consent of its MPs to legislation that only affected England – moved into the political mainstream. Some campaigners and MPs suggested that only the establishment of an equivalent English parliament could address the profound imbalance created by the devolution granted to the other UK countries.
In 2015, the David Cameron-led Conservative government introduced a new set of rules for dealing with those parts of legislation that related to England only. Known by the acronym EVEL (short for “English vote for English laws”), these reforms proved immensely complicated to operate and elicited little enthusiasm among MPs, while being almost unknown to the wider public. They were quietly abolished by Johnson’s Tory government in 2020.
While the idea of remaking the UK along federal lines, with each part of the state having its own parliament for domestic legislation, enjoys some support and may grow in appeal, Britain’s politicians and the vast majority of its constitutional experts remain decidedly cool towards this idea. They believe that pushing in this direction could lead to the dissolution of the UK given the preponderant size and wealth of England – meaning it would have a disproportionate amount of influence within a federated UK.
Such a reform is unwarranted on this view, because England is already the most powerful and important part of the UK governing system, with an overwhelming majority of MPs sitting in English seats. But once the question of how and where England sits within the UK’s increasingly discordant union was raised, it would never be easy to put it back into obscurity.
‘When will we get a vote?’
According to some survey evidence, the people in England most likely to believe their country is losing out in the UK’s current devolution settlement are those most inclined to feel that central government is too distant from – and neglectful of – their lives. They were also the most likely to vote to get the UK out of the EU in 2016.
This sentiment was already a sensitive political topic by the mid-2000s, when Conservative MPs became concerned about the implications of devolution elsewhere for the English, while their Labour counterparts typically preferred to hymn the virtues of regional devolution, particularly in northern England. But how the English and their political representatives felt about these issues took on new relevance during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.
Towards the end of this contest, an announcement of further devolution to Scotland was made in the form of a much-trumpeted “vow” endorsed by the leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem parties. Whether this promise of new powers for the Scottish government made any difference to the outcome of this historic poll is highly debatable. But what was notable was the hostile reaction it elicited in different parts of England – including on the part of many Tory MPs towards their prime minister. Such was the level of annoyance it stirred, Cameron was compelled to hold a gathering at his country retreat, Chequers, to assuage the mutinous mood of these backbenchers.
Surveys have suggested that a sizeable minority of the English held strong views about the outcome of the Scottish referendum – with about 20% of respondents happy for the Scots to go, and around the same number worried about the impact of Scotland leaving the UK. But another sentiment was palpable at this time. “When will we get a vote?” was a question I recall being put to me again and again by English audience members at various panel discussions over the summer of 2014. Behind it lay a sense of frustration that, in comparison with the Scots, the English were being left disenfranchised as their allegiance to the governing order was taken for granted.
The contrast between the narrow terms in which the “English question” was framed at Westminster and the growing appeal of powerful ideas about sovereignty, democratic control and national self-determination in this period is striking. And it formed an important prelude to the rebellion of the English majority in the Brexit referendum of 2016 when, finally, they were given a vote on an issue of constitutional importance, with profound economic and societal results.
Despite all that’s since been said about that Brexit vote and its impacts, the question of what happens when a national majority becomes more restive about the multinational arrangements in which it sits demands further consideration in this context. As I argue in my new book, Fractured Union, the future prospects of the UK’s union may even depend on it.
A lesson from history?
One – perhaps slightly unexpected – international example worth considering here is Czechoslovakia, which split into the separate states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1 1993. Despite many differences in context – not least its long history of rule by the Communist party, and the centrifugal dynamics let loose by the party’s disintegration in 1989 – aspects of this story are highly relevant to the current situation facing the Anglo-Scottish Union in particular.
The break-up of Czechoslovakia did not emanate directly from nationalist demands among the populace, but was significantly determined by decisions made at the political level. Just six months prior to the vote, support for the option of splitting Czechoslovakia into two wholly independent states was as low as 16% in both parts of the country. And there is every chance that a referendum on this issue (which came close to happening) would have produced a majority for the continuation of the status quo.
Two decades earlier, in 1968, new legislation established to protect the Slovaks from being dominated by the Czech majority held that constitutional and other important laws had to be passed on the basis of “special majorities”. These provisions were the source of constant grumbling and some resentment on the Czech side, being perceived as anti-democratic checks upon the will of the majority.
Under the political control of the Communist party, these differences were overridden by the party’s interest in the preservation of the wider state. But once Communism ended and a democratic model was introduced, friction between ideas of Slovakian sovereignty and the imperatives of a federal state model accentuated the underlying tensions between these nations and the parliaments where they were represented. In some echo of the Anglo-Scottish situation, many Czechs resented a perceived imbalance at the scale of representation of the Slovaks within the federal government, and questioned the disproportionate transfer of resources to the poorer Slovakian territory.
Despite extended and fraught negotiations over the constitutional framework, the gulf in the constitutional outlooks of politicians from these territories was considerable, with both sets espousing entirely different constitutional perspectives. Agreement was finally reached on a new federal framework in November 1991, but this deal was voted down by the Slovak parliament. Its Czech equivalent thereafter declared that further negotiation with the Slovak side would be pointless.
At the parliamentary elections of June 1992, the main winners in both territories were the political parties least inclined to compromise with the other side. Having given up on negotiations, and with the prospect of a referendum in Slovakia on its future within the state having been abandoned too, the Czech government moved towards the idea of a speedy and complete division.
Could it happen in the UK?
Czechoslovakia’s split throws into relief the key role politicians can play in moments of constitutional crisis, as well as the corrosive effect of feelings of neglect and unfairness among a national majority that can build up over time. It highlights, too, the challenge of sustaining a union when politicians at central and sub-state levels hold irreconcilable constitutional worldviews, and are fishing for votes in different territorial ponds.
Is it conceivable that some British politicians could, at some point, seek advantage by mobilising an appeal to the English majority against the claims and complaints of the smaller nations in the UK? And might the emergence of public scepticism within parts of the Tory party towards the models of devolved government in Cardiff and Edinburgh be understood as the first signs of such a dynamic?
There have already been moments in the recent political past when the appeal to the defence of neglected English interests has been politically powerful – for instance, during the 2015 general election campaign when the Conservatives deployed images of Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, sitting in the pocket of the SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon. And this may well recur as a theme in future Westminster elections, particularly if the SNP is able to recover from its current downturn.
However, in the longer run, what will do most to determine how the disaffected inhabitants of “provincial” England feel about devolution – and the lure of greater recognition and protection for English interests – is the quality of governance, service provision and economic opportunity they experience.
In recent years, despite the introduction of metro mayors, there has been little success in closing the regional gaps which “levelling up” was designed to address, and there is a real prospect of yet more local authorities going bankrupt. It would be little wonder, then, if the calls for greater priority to be paid to the concerns of the English heartland grow louder in years to come.