The Union and the English question. The answer is to let a hundred localist flowers bloom

The Union and the English question. The answer is to let a hundred localist flowers bloom

The state of the Union and its survival against the threat of Scexit will likely be the only political story once the May elections are out of the way.

This debate will, perhaps, exhaust and infuriate English patience even more intently and insistently than the last occasion this once-in-a-generation issue was aired back in 2014. Because while the Lion and the Unicorn fight all about the town, the unacknowledged English question remains the dominant animal metaphor, the singular elephant in the room.

As an exasperated Emmanuel Macron had it last month, our island destiny is pure history and geography. With nearly 85 per cent of the population, England is too populous and powerful for any hope of balance among Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

In sheer demographic terms, every English region bar the East Midlands (4.8 million) and the North East (2.7 million) has a population equal to or bigger than Scotland’s and a mostly comparable gross value added. England’s regions are either net contributors or have a smaller fiscal deficit to Scotland, yet enjoy lower per head public spending, thanks to the anachronistic Barnett formula.

Under the asymmetric devolution arrangement, England remains the only country of the UK without a parliament, government and first minister. As such it lacks anything like the devolved political powers matching those granted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the late 1990s.

The policy options for devolution in England, in lieu of any serious consideration of an English Parliament, have focused on three areas.

Systems and structures of regional or sub-regional government, such as mayoral combined authorities.

Alterations to the operation of the British Parliament, such as through the process of ‘English Votes on English Law’ (EVEL)

And devolution to local government.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 referendum success, David Cameron latched on to the fact that England was the “crucial part missing from this national discussion” and that “the millions of voices of England must also be heard”. Seven years on, the part of the debate that tends to get marginalized in defence of the Union is what kind of local, regional or sub-regional government would be good for England.

It is often safe to ignore the breathless and excited talk about the prospects of constitutional commissions and inquiries and the workings of a federal British system. Federalism as cause for balkanization will fail in any case, owing to the absence of an English regional consciousness. G.K Chesterton’s famed “English people who have not spoken yet” do tend to speak, rather stridently, in practice by voting against things like North East regional assemblies or supranational entanglements.

Indeed, as was often said, many among the English who delivered Brexitland didn’t vote to leave the European Union only to transfer unaccountable power from Brussels to Whitehall.

Quickly restoring the nation’s economic and social fortunes must be the priority and central focus of any efforts at devolution, and certainly not the top-down imposition of unwelcome governance structures. It is understandable, from a central government perspective, and as Michael Gove adumbrated in his Ditchley lecture last year, to adopt a US model for how the president deals with 50 or so governors.

On the surface, it would seem to make more streamlined, rational sense than the local government mix that means there is a two-speed system – pitting go-ahead metro (think Andy Street in the West Midlands or Ben Houchen in Tees Valley) against retro and rural when it comes to economic growth powers.

Indeed, economic recovery and English devolution have been explicitly yoked together by the Government. The White Paper on this underwent a bizarre failure to launch last autumn, which saw a successful rearguard attempt to see off enforced unitarisation in county/district areas.

However, that political moment to deliver, after a meandering 50 year course, a rational Redcliffe-Maude model structure on English local government went with Simon Clarke’s sudden departure from government. In the absence of big-bang unitarisation, we have consultations on how best to govern Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset, and the expectation of a diluted White Paper before the year is out.

So if we take the mirage of an English parliament and the chimera of regionalisation, plus the bait and switch of structural reorgnisation for devolution off the table, what are we left with?

Well, quite possibly the strong and traditional sense of English self-government which Robert Tombs praised in The English and their history.

A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome. If parts of the country, taking the red rose of Lancashire as one example, wish to unitarise, then so be it. If there’s a consensus for One Yorkshire to capitalise on the white rose county’s identity for full place potential, what’s not to like? Were it to make sense to give our major cities greater powers over public services, pro-growth powers and investment choices to quicken the pace of adaptation and renewal, let’s make a new and improved deal for combined authorities.

Central and local relations surely reached a ‘never again’ moment during the pandemic. If the outcome is that one-size-fits-all uniformity doesn’t work in England, the central state must deal with it. Having coped with Brexit and Covid-19, the Whitehall machine could culturally learn to adapt and manage a bit more native complexity and better understand the people it purports to serve.

Function is more important than form. It doesn’t bother a person in Nottinghamshire one iota if their local government looks different to that of their counterpart in Northumberland. If the centre vacates the space, English local government will assume the shape and fill it with whatever configuration is appropriate to deliver. If an English devolution settlement is to achieve success, we will need a central government that doesn’t micromanage every last line of local public expenditure, or devise strategies that affect the destinies of places in the abstract without consultation or deep understanding of local context.

So after function and form comes finance. With an eye to the next multi-year spending review, changes in how we resource the English local state will prove vital. Localis’s recent international survey of how fiscal decentralization and devolution work out in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland points the way.

The examples from continental Europe neatly disprove the bogey-man argument that fiscal devolution should always lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ or an iniquitous postcode lottery. Far from it.

On the contrary, the evidence suggests instead that without greater decentralisation of local government finance, the levelling up agenda will fail to provide either the targeted economic development support to rebalance regional economies or the social infrastructure to cement place prosperity.

Ultimately, as George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn’ from 1941, “England has got to assume its real shape”.

Jonathan Werran, chief executive, Localis

This article first appeared on ConservativeHome