Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is back with an interesting piece on Labour List. After he has a good remoan about Brexit – in which he also raises valid economic concerns along the way – he makes the following worrying point:
“We used to think that what was good for London was good for the whole country and that, in a London-driven UK, prosperity would trickle downwards to even the poorest regions. But, as Professor Philip McCann has shown in his book The UK Regional-National Economic Problem: Geography, Globalisation and Governance, very little of London’s success spills over into the regions either in the form of business relocation, technology transfer or contracts for northern firms servicing the southern economy.”
He says the capital has for many years been decoupling from the rest of the UK.
“Despite 50 years of regional policy initiatives – from selective industrial assistance to regional development agencies and regional ministers – a London-centric, Whitehall dominated constitution has found itself inadequate to the challenge of reversing Britain’s deeply-embedded structural inequalities.”
“Per capita income levels in the north and midlands of England, Wales and Northern Ireland are now as low as the poorest US states – Mississippi and West Virginia – and on a par with the poorer regions of the former East Germany.”
But then he gets to his proposed solution, and straight away he is back doing his old routine of refusing to appreciate that England is a country that has no interest in being subdivided into regional bodies designed by Scottish devolutionists.
Brown supports a “council of the north,” as advocated by Labour’s Jon Trickett, and suggests there could be councils for the midlands and south west and east and other regions.
This policy is a reminder of the key flaw that made the devolution revolution of the 1990s inherently unstable. That was also designed by Scottish Labour, and then implemented after 1997 by the Scottish arm of New Labour which had disproportionate power because Scotland remained a breeding ground for talent in Labour’s difficult 1980s.
England was treated differently from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which were given parliaments and assemblies. England – too big, said the Scottish devolutionists – could not get similar arrangements because… well, because.
It is really quite insulting, to England. The Scottish parliament was and is an expression of nationhood, albeit within the UK family. Imagine the anger if English former Chancellors penned pieces saying that rather than there being a Scottish parliament there should be a council of the Scottish central belt.
Yet by Brown and New Labour England was repeatedly denied political recognition as an entity. Labour tried instead to sell regional devolution to the English regions but it was rejected by voters in the North East who legitimately worried about the expense of an extra tier of government when they already pay for local authorities. Some also suspected (rightly) that this break up had the support of the EU because it fragmented England as part of Britain and made it potentially less coherent.
What can be done instead?
1) Give yet more power to the great cities of England. They have strong identities.
2) Scrap HS2, another project that points to the increasingly overcrowded and arrogant capital.
3) Spend the money from HS2 on regional transport that goes across England – east to west, west to east. We always, as my Reaction colleague Maggie Pagano puts it, invest in the spine of Britain, north to south, and think too little about the ribs. Liverpool to Hull. Manchester to Newcastle, Cambridge to Oxford, and so on. Connect the country.
4) Use Brexit to rethink and regenerate Britain’s constitutional arrangements. Personally, I would bin the Lords and replace it with a largely elected senate of the nations, perhaps with some members drawn from the devolved parliaments and the best of the current Lords, and make the Commons the chamber of England. The Prime Minister could sit in either chamber. That might or might not fly. Either way, freshen things up.
Parliament during the renovation of its building should have been moved to York, incidentally.
Brexit is an opportunity to rethink Britain. Wonderful but neglected England outside London needs attention. But don’t break it up with yet more regionalist schemes devised by Scottish devolutionists who struggle to accept that England as an entity exists.