The Levelling Up White Paper: the political price of devolution

The Levelling-Up White Paper is certainly full of platitudes and almost definitely biased towards securing Conservative gains, but we should at least acknowledge the step towards a grown-up conversation about devolution and decentralisation in the UK.

The publication of the Levelling Up White Paper at the start of February has largely flown under the radar, with the Ukraine-Russia crisis and a slew of corruption and legal scandals at the heart of government dominating headlines. However, despite the relatively low coverage of the extensive policy plan, it has the potential to transform the UK’s politics and governance rapidly and permanently. The government’s strategy offers (among many other policies) to recalibrate the politico-economic settlement with the least affluent parts of the UK by devolving extensive powers akin to those currently harnessed by the Welsh Senedd and Scottish Parliament (Holyrood). Such a commitment is an admirable move that would allow greater micro-management of resources in less economically-developed areas (especially coastal and northern regions), but we should rightfully question why previous Conservative governments have not publicly recognised this need before. The governmental effort required to negotiate financial settlements, set up voting systems, and hold elections in all of these regions before 2030 is a swift and substantial change to the UK constitution that we must see as coming with a political price.

While scepticism is necessary, we are potentially seeing the budding flowers of a radical new form of regionally-oriented politics. English devolution as a specific policy proposal first arose out of Conservative discussions on how to retain new ‘Red Wall’ voters from the 2019 general election and ‘save the union’. This has been particularly prudent given the likely threat of Scottish secession in the next few years, but it hadn’t been clear what exactly the plan comprised until now. There has been much rhetorical focus on moving central government out of London and redistributing wealth but, as Gove’s new wide-ranging and powerful role (Secretary of State for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities) suggests, this requires a much larger recalibration of community government and administration across the country, rather than mere relocation. The white paper does include these arguably odd policies for the decentralisation and relocation of some sections of the UK government, but also promises more fundamental changes regarding regional English devolution.

It is probable that the devolution policy is likely to be implemented across England in the duplicitous hope that voters will be more likely to support Conservative candidates for regional government, just as Labour intended in 1998 with the creation of the Scottish Parliament. This will be especially important in rural areas with a unique cultural heritage where they have been increasingly electorally successful. Anger from senior Conservatives that they continually lose the majority of mayoral races (they won just two out of 13 in May 2021) has sparked attempts to introduce anti-democratic reforms to voting in the UK, including calls for a Republican-style voter ID scheme and further implementation of SMDP (Single-Member District Plurality) election systems. In contrast to this reactionary and anti-democratic attitude, the levelling-up plan states that “by 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution”. This aspect of the paper is particularly interesting, as it suggests that the government will soon hold several referenda in which they pitch specific models of localised government to different regions to qualify the “wants one” comment. Scepticism about the well-meaning nature of the government at this point is warranted; devolution isn’t coming without a political price.

The Conservatives could use these referenda as a strategy to further recalibrate UK politics to their advantage, around a communitarian-centralisation axis. This would allow the Conservative party to pivot away from high-profile political debates now widely viewed as toxic, such as Brexit and immigration, instead pitching themselves as the party of local government and not as the party of a corrupt Westminster cabal. This would evidently be an opportunity for any new leader of the Conservative Party to revitalise and renew itself for the 2024 election. This would also pose a challenge for Starmer’s Labour, which currently appears to be focusing on publicising Conservative weaknesses rather than on presenting a comprehensive set of Labour policies. Though the opposition leader has publicly speculated about the possibility of a federalised Britain, there remains a significant question mark over what the precise constitutional settlement would comprise. In this situation, it is likely that the Conservatives would gain strategic advantage from a repivot by stealing the show from Labour.

One thing the Conservatives could do to alleviate public distrust in their commitment to democracy is to draw on experience from the Scottish and Welsh devolution cases where the government sometimes appeared to be trying to influence their fiscal (tax/spend) policies. Establishing strong fiscal devolution for every regional jurisdiction from day one of the policy’s implementation could allay fears that the central government is hesitant to relinquish their powers to more localised and representative institutions. Several attempts by senior ministers to pass bills that would effectively suppress democracy on a national scale (namely the policing bill which would outlaw “noisy” protest, and the Elections Bill, which would introduce voter ID and change already established voting systems to those that would favour the Tories) have already tarred the party as anti-democratic, but a firm commitment to fiscal devolution could improve the situation somewhat. This fiscal empowerment would also allow for broader variation across the country in line with politico-cultural preferences, and could reduce reliance on council tax, which itself requires rethinking in an era of uneven and detached local governance.

While we should all recognise that the government has taken a mature step forward with these policies, there can be no denying that there remain debates, policies, and problems to be ironed out in the future. These problems demand discussion with the British people through civic assemblies and local government consultations, not faux referendums to confirm or deny what are effectively Conservative HQ decisions. Levelling up is essential for Britain to remain together as one, but without greater consideration of the policies currently being planned, there remain significant risks to both the authority of the central government and to the wellbeing of the whole UK. As citizens in a democracy we should be actively sceptical of the intentions of the UK government in pursuing these reforms given that we have seen the basest desires of this government to pursue policies which would suppress democracy and weaken accountability even with the guise of more voting.

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