Max Leak, Devolution: A Bold Step Backwards

The notion of decentralisation is central to current political discourse. From Scottish independence and regional inequality to the question of the European Union, a surprising number of the United Kingdom’s most-discussed issues are, in some way, matters of the division of power along geographical lines. Both of the great insurgencies in modern Britain – the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (Ukip) – are entities whose raison d’etre is the relocation of political powers. Moreover, established parties are increasingly fixated on making promises of ever-greater devolution; even nationwide policies such as NHS reform and the free schools programme are constantly branded as measures to hand influence to ‘local people’. It would be easy to assume, in this context, that political devolution is the settled and heartfelt desire of the public. Farage, in particular, is fond of proclaiming that the ‘ordinary people’ of the nation are clamouring for the downfall of Brussels’ evil empire, and that only the ‘chattering classes’ have contrived (or conspired) to ignore the will of the people. Figures across the political spectrum (or at least that severely circumscribed section of it which finds expression in Westminster) have internalised the assumption that most people would rather see the business of government geographically relocated to their own local areas.

It is interesting, then, that a cursory analysis of polling data gives the lie to this notion: there is very little evidence that political devolution enjoys a vice-like grip on the public psyche. The question of the European Union and Ukip is a good example of this. Politicians tend to assume that the European question is central to Nigel Farage’s political appeal; no Ukip electoral breakthrough is ever complete, it seems, without a round of Tory recriminations over the Conservative Party’s EU policy. The surprising truth is that most people continue to view the EU as a highly peripheral issue in affecting their voting decisions. One large Yougov survey on the eve of  Ukip’s recent electoral breakthrough showed that the party’s spell of success had coincided with a shift of opinion in favour of EU membership, which was supported  by 42% of people and opposed by 37%.[1] Overall, polls in recent months have started showing a consistent margin of opinion in favour of membership, even while broader factors such as anger at Westminster and concern about immigration have propelled Ukip forward.

In the case of Scotland, the pattern of feedback is largely the same: though people do generally support the SNP’s call for a referendum, and may yet opt to leave the UK, polls which ask respondents about their views on specific issues often find the question of independence languishing near the bottom of voters’ lists of priorities. One extensive batch of research carried out last year, for example, found that strong support for the SNP coexisted with unfavourable numbers  for the pro-independence campaign (which at that time suffered an almost 40-point deficit of support), with a majority of voters (61%) complaining that Salmond’s government has been guilty of skewed priorities.[2] Like Ukip, the SNP utilises votes gained through a broader political appeal (like the charge to rescue public services from austerity) to push constitutional causes that are largely unimportant to its own supporters.

The instance of the SNP also illustrates a further problem in attempting to gauge levels of support for devolution. Put simply, many people will support devolution when such a course of action is seen as leading to immediate improvements in policy outcomes, but are entirely lacking in interest in the abstract, constitutional debates around political institutions and reforms. This effect may also provide a cyclical boost to interest in devolution in those parts of the country – currently Scotland and Northern England – whose political perspectives are out of line with the government of the day. In the end, there is little to suggest that British public opinion has ever been characterised by a deep, abstract concern for the efficacy and fairness of political institutions. The United Kingdom tolerates the First Past the Post voting system; it tolerates the existence of hereditary peers in the House of Lords; it positively fawns, for the most part, on its unelected head of state. If the nation were indeed undergoing a flowering of principled constitutional reformism, one would expect to hear much more discussion of these obvious and anachronistic flaws in our current structure of government.

Why is it, then, that Parliament commits so readily to reforms which, on the face of things, appear to debase its own authority? If grass-roots campaigners are not pressuring Westminster to deal with the issue, then why is our political elite so keen to emphasise its commitment to the cause of devolution? One answer could be that many politicians see regional devolution as a chance to reapportion blame for problems which are, in fact, structural in nature and global in scale. Political establishments, unable to challenge the failing neoliberal dogmas which dominate modern politics, seek instead to redirect attention through a visible but essentially superficial reshuffling of blame and responsibility. Huge numbers of people from across the political spectrum appear to feel a sense of disillusionment with politics, and many blame the particular institutions which govern them. Even Oxford student politics has furnished its own analogue of this phenomenon in the recent attempt to sever the University’s links with the National Union of Students. On one level, it is heartening to witness activists engaging with bold solutions to our plethora of ongoing social, economic and political problems, but the suggestion that devolution will facilitate change is ultimately misguided. The Left must focus its reformist zeal upon policy, and not dispense its energy altering the geography of particular political institutions.

Too often, the shuffling of authority from one body to another is proposed as a silver bullet for problems which can only be solved through the repeal of neoliberal policy. A good example of this is a recent surge of interest in the granting of regional autonomy to the North of England. While it is certainly easy to conclude that Northern regions would be better off under local, progressive administration than under centralised Tory rule, devolution would likely mean a final, formal cordoning-off of hoarded southern capital; true rejuvenation for depressed regions would have to involve a large investment of national revenue through a strong and central redistributive state. The same problem is raised by recent calls from figures in London, including the Shadow Justice Minister Sadiq Kahn, for the capital to be allowed to retain a larger proportion of its own tax revenue. The capital clearly contains major areas of depression which would benefit from increased expenditure, but with London currently constituting over 20% of the nation’s GDP, it is difficult not to view Kahn’s suggestion as a profoundly regressive one in terms of nationwide impact. Other London-based politicians – some of whom are known to nurse mayoral ambitions – have made similar warnings: the Labour MP David Lammy, for example, has branded the proposed mansion tax a “tax on London”.[3] This particular form of regional advocacy – the view that wealthy communities must be left to enjoy their wealth while poor ones suffer – is one of the pitfalls of the devolution debate as it stands.

There are further reasons for the ongoing march of devolution, and many of these should be deeply discomforting to the Left. Politicians are adept at ‘devolving’ powers in such a way as to facilitate those localities which share the objective of central government, whilst keeping a tight rein on those powers which would allow a real sectional break with central policy. Michael Gove’s recent educational reforms are an excellent example of this. Significant classroom autonomy has been granted to ‘free schools’ that are run, for the most part, by Tory-friendly, middle-class groups in Right-leaning areas; meanwhile, state comprehensives are seeing their curriculum placed under strict Whitehall-based control. The Education Secretary’s agenda was described in 2011 by education expert Professor Stephen Ball as “a fragmented centralisation”[4], and this near-oxymoronic label would seem consistent with developments since then. The discordant mixture of delegations and centralisations is explicable insofar as the overall permutation is designed to facilitate neoliberal agendas – in this case, the fracturing of the comprehensive school system, and possibly its eventual penetration by private-sector interests.

The fragmentation of state authority is, in and of itself, strongly amenable to the interests of international capital. Smaller nations and regions are, of course, more vulnerable to the advances of powerful and coercive private-sector entities. There is a strong awareness of this in our government’s present policy. Healthcare reforms, for example, have served to fragment the NHS into many local bodies, each of which is then less able to compete commercially with large private contractors (the reforms are also an example of the “fragmented centralisation” syndrome: despite the fragmentation, Whitehall ministers retain the power to unilaterally overrule dissenting local authorities). The same is true of political institutions: while a Northern English assembly, for example, would very probably include a greater proportion of honest and well-intentioned individuals than the Westminster Parliament, it seems unlikely that such a body could ever wield sufficient financial or commercial power to challenge the powerful vested interests that drive the neoliberal project. Moreover, the diffusion of political power into smaller geographical units assists the private sector in a more general sense, by proliferating competition between states and regions for investment in an amplification of the international ‘race to the bottom’ in wages and protections. It is unsurprising that Ukip are unconcerned by this prospect: its platform, which includes flat taxes and a shredding of workers’ rights, is brazenly Thatcherite. Yet it may be more surprising that the nominally social-democratic SNP are unconcerned at the prospect of two British nations duelling to attract private investment. Indeed, the party’s rhetoric on the right of communities to govern themselves has already worn thin at several points in Alex Salmond’s premiership, as in his prominent 2008 decision to overrule the residents of Aberdeenshire by opening up the area to the American property tycoon Donald Trump.

It is reasonable that many people have been angered by the failure of our political institutions to safeguard the welfare of ordinary people, but the fracturing of state authority along spatial lines can only reinforce the unbalanced and unsustainable economic model which is the ultimate cause of our malaise. Organisations such as the European Union and the Westminster Parliament have been thoroughly co-opted by vested interests, and that the task of reclaiming them for the Left is an arduous one; yet the strategy of reclaiming and reforming these institutions is evidently more feasible than resisting international capital from local town halls. Capital and its political champions have never been more closely coordinated across international boundaries; progressive forces cannot respond by retreating into localised isolation. The depth and geographical scale of neoliberal hegemony make it all the more pressing that the Left avoid settling for the stalling tactics and half-measures offered by devolution. Power is not in the wrong place; it is in the wrong hands.

 

Max Leak is a  2nd-year student of Spanish and Portuguese at Wadham College, Oxford, and a contributor to the Oxford Student and ISIS magazine.

 

Footnotes:

 

[1]    Andrew Osborn, ‘As UK holds local, EU elections poll reveals a paradox’, Reuters, available at http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/05/22/uk-eu-elections-britain-idUKKBN0E21N320140522, last accessed 26th May 2014

[2]             Scott MacNab, ‘Poll: Scots to reject independence, re-elect SNP’, The Scotsman, available at http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/top-stories/poll-scots-to-reject-independence-re-elect-snp-1-3082139, last accessed 26th May 2014

[3]                 3 Rowena Mason, ‘Labour mayoral candidates cast doubt on mansion tax’, accessible at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/nov/26/labour-mayor-candidates-mansion-tax, last accessed 26th May 2014

[4]             Stephen Ball, ‘Back to the 19th century with Michael Gove’s education bill’, The Guardian, accessible at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/jan/31/michael-gove-education-bill, last accessed 26th May 2014

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