“All politics is local”
Former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill
One fact that escapes many foreign observers is that the UK is a nation of many nations; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each nation has a separate culture and often a separate language, even if English remains the de facto functioning language as well as the official one. British history is the story of a union being created as a consequence of convenience as well as coercion. The latter has in particular has been lingered on by local nationalists from Welsh nationalists who recall the Marcher Lords to the Scottish nationalists who recall the dismantlement of British industry under Thatcher. Meanwhile the symbol of British unity, the Queen, watches on as the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) begins to demand another independence referendum. Britain does not need dead institutions to promote unity, it needs a system that is responsive to central and regional needs. Britain needs federalism.
The British system is one of the most centralised governing systems in Europe. Only Malta is said to be more centralised. If the UK was to be governed by the federal model then the most obvious way of implementing this would be to break the different nations up into states that govern local affairs. However immediately we come across the simple problem in that all of the nations are not equal in population or wealth. In terms of population alone Scotland has just over 5 million people, Wales 3 million and Northern Ireland has just under 2 million. England trumps them all with a population of around 55 million. London by 2014 statistics has a population of over 8 million, which is roughly four times the size of Northern Ireland.
Having England as one self-governing state in a wider union is probably impractical, not just because London along may command a fair section of an elected state parliament. Concerns have been mounting for some time about the neglect of regional economies outside of London, in particular in the north and most notably the north east. Many of these areas were left embittered by the loss of relative affluence that industry used to provide. These areas have long become Labour strongholds that debatably have a mixed record of rectifying the void left by industry, which is particularly true of the north east of England. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has shrewdly picked up on this neglect while also exploiting the somewhat hypocritical bigotry some of the locals display toward those workers who have regenerated old market towns, because they happen to be from Eastern Europe. In fairness to Labour though the failure to reinvent this regional economy is not solely down to them, but also down to the centralised framework they have to work through. To deal with the regional problem I believe that England will have to be split into at least four states which includes one for London and at one for the Midlands and another for the north.
Local government financing follows a strange system when one thinks about it. All of the proceeds of council tax is sent to London, only for them to be then doled out by the Department for Communities and Local Government, in sums they calculate themselves. This can distort the picture of how well a certain area is doing regionally. If you add to this the limited capacity that councils have to change their own rates of council tax and no control about how they raise it, it becomes harder to see the value of local governments. Local politics then seems to take a backseat to the national kind with the former largely becoming the concern of retirees or part time workers. It is only natural that with imbalance of power between national and local politics public interest would move to the former. Rejuvenating local politics is important not only for empowering regional economies but also empowering communities and helping them to address common problems.
Of course not all areas would be able to survive on the revenue their local municipality can raise. Some parts of Glasgow have such significant health problems that the survival rates for young men are worse than those in the Gaza Strip. Northern Ireland has a hefty security burden to carry while it is also a region with one of the highest concentrations of benefit claimants. However to save the baby being thrown out of the bath water, there is no need to completely dispense with using regional self-financing as long as there is an agreed central government (or federal government) supplement to this. This of course may be a cause of friction since for the better off regions, since their support for federalism would likely be contingent on them not having to subsidise less well-off areas. In practice this happens anyway with federal programmes in other countries. As a compromise this may lead to be the subsidies being temporary or at least conditional. That begs the question; would the central government not still hold the whip handle?
The lions’ share of infrastructure spending is spent on London. Since this is the most populous city of the entire UK, let alone England, there is arguably some rationale for this. But this has come at the expense of knitting together other regional economic units in the UK and repairing valuable infrastructure. Nowadays when it comes to infrastructure politicians like to think big on the scale of HS2, HS3 and the Pennine’s Tunnel part of the Northern Powerhouse. The first two projects seem more focused of connecting London’s prosperity to other cities and regions, rather than fostering such potential prosperity from them. But most importantly the mounting costs of such schemes are becoming harder to justify. Recent studies by universities have revealed that smaller scale infrastructure measures like repairing pot-holes in roads, various road and rail modifications may yield much more economic benefit than grand schemes such as HS2. Arguably such measures are worth a try considering the tax payers money it can save. Local government attention directed to infrastructure can also help rejuvenate airports that are struggling such as Cambridge’s which has just closed down.
The effect of central government cuts have compounded the effects of local government cuts. While billions have been frittered away in the NHS on largely unwelcome reforms, cuts in local government have hampered it’s ability to finance social care. The net result is that the NHS finds more beds allocated to care for the elderly while the very sick go without. Local colleges which are struggling to balance their finances resort to selling their land to housing developers. If Britain had federalism then local governments could take more of the big picture of how these different components effect their region. It could also help them think more tactically about the economic future of their region.
Loyalty to regional and national identity is threatening to become louder than loyalty to unionist identity. This is natural since there was nothing inevitable about the establishment of the union in the first place. Much of our history is rooted in sagas of feuding interspersed with occasional alliances of convenience. Furthermore the different nations that make up the union require different medicine for their remedies. The same goes for the regions of England. These regions have been the victim of central government planning radiating from London leading to their relative neglect. There are federal systems all over the world from Germany to the US for us to learn from. We don’t need more piecemeal “powerhouse” projects, we need British federalism.