Devolution in the UK: the growth of the English variant

John Denham discusses how England is becoming more centralised by a Prime Minister keen on ‘unfettered leadership’, arguing that the model of elected mayors is losing its attraction to central government. This extension of the powers of the Union state over England might well be described as the ‘English variant’. It faces unique and significant policy and political challenges.

In the early months of 2020, there seemed to be a sharp contrast between Conservative policy towards the governance of England and its approach to the devolved nations. Its 2019 manifesto had promised ‘full devolution across England so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny’. Across the Union the government was already setting out its intention to intervene more directly in the affairs of the devolved nations. This so-called ‘assertive unionism’ – an attempt to refashion some form of more unitary UK state – had been foreshadowed when Boris Johnson had declared his intention to be Minister for the Union and in an influential report by Policy Exchange.

The commitment to publish a Devolution and Recovery White Paper for England was set out in July 2020 (in a speech by then local government minister Simon Clarke which has now been removed from government websites). But by the turn of 2021, in the wake of a bruising confrontation with Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham, it was clear that ministers were losing interest in English devolution. The Devolution White Paper has been dropped, to be replaced by a ‘Levelling-Up’ White Paper. There is little detail on the new approach, but all the signs are that it will bring an intensification of centralisation that will extend the powers of Whitehall rather than localities. The funds intended to drive ‘levelling up’ have either been centralised at an England level, as with the English Towns Fund, or as part of UK wide funding programmes for ‘Shared Prosperity’ and ‘Community Renewal’ funds.

The early sharp contrast between Conservative plans for England and for the rest of the Union are now being replaced by something that looks much more consistent. Instead of a fundamentally different approach to English governance, England is becoming more, rather than less, centralised and, in many cases, integrated into Union-wide investment programmes. This extension of the powers of the Union state over England might well be described as the ‘English variant’. It has features that are unique to England, but at its core is the same idea of the centralised Union state.

The drivers of this change include the outlook and temperament of the Prime Minister himself. Successful leadership in a devolved polity depends on forming good working relationships with leaders who enjoy their own legitimacy and a degree of autonomy. Boris Johnson has found that difficult with Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh, and is no less happy to be challenged by English mayors. His predilection for an Anglocentric British nationalism that regards the interests of the Union and of England as very much the same sits easily with his desire for unfettered leadership.

This outlook was apparent in discussions of both the Internal Market Act and the Northern Ireland Protocol. On these debates, the interests of England in Brexit (and of English influence within the Union) were given priority over the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in their membership of the United Kingdom. This view reflects the growing influence of ‘hyper-unionism’ over the older forms of Conservative unionism that gave more space to the different perspectives that the now devolved nations had of the Union. Of course, a politics that asserts the primacy of the Union over its nations has little space for any form of political identity for England.

More naked political considerations have also played a role. The commitment to funds for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and the devolved combined mayoral authorities have, arguably, brought the Conservatives few political returns (Labour found the same with its funding for Regional Development Agencies). Centralised funding allows much more modest investment to buy a higher political reward. A small cheque requested by the local MP and channelled to the council to buy hanging baskets at the station may not level up very much but, to the voter who feels their town has been ignored for too long, it may appear that politics is doing something. The allocation of funds by the government has been widely criticised for reflecting political priorities over objective needs.

The mayoral model, whether as a powerful coordinator of policy across a city region, or the Heseltine model of the powerful individual with whom Whitehall deals, is losing its attraction in the eyes of ministers. The narrative may not change. Mayor Ben Houchen will still get credit for the Teeside freeport, but the Solent area will also get a freeport that will cover the same local councils whose combined mayoral authority was rejected a couple of years ago. Some further devolution may take place to counties but it is clear that the process will be tightly controlled from the centre. Having devolved structures and mayors is no longer key to unlocking central support.

These political changes are welcomed in Whitehall where the dominant culture still largely believes that government is done best in London by people who know what they are talking about. Despite widespread criticism of the pandemic response for marginalising local government leaders and public health professionals, there are no signs of a political or civil service rethink of statecraft to give more value to local expertise and legitimacy. Policies in the pipeline, including giving NHS ministers more sway over social care – the key responsibility of top tier local government – and reducing the planning powers of local government all increase the powers of the centre. With further austerity planned for English local government, the future will see a weaker English local government less able to show leadership in place shaping and more wide-ranging powers for the Union state.

At the same time, the Treasury is reasserting control over key areas of domestic policy. Industrial strategy has been brought back in house and it already appears that this will lend support to trade deals that cut import costs over the enhanced domestic production that was at the focus of the local (and decentralised) industrial strategies that were promoted until recently.

All these changes mean that there is currently no clear narrative about how England is to be governed. The language used until recently of empowered local mayors leading great city regions to work with a more interventionist industrial policy, business and higher education, all supported by and working with central government, seems to be very muted today. The extent to which that vision was a reality can be debated but it did gain support from a wide range of actors, including Labour-led local authorities, who were at least willing to try to bring it about.

There are specifically England issues here of course, but the government’s approach to England looks increasingly like an English variant of the Anglocentric British nationalism with a strong central state that we are seeing across the Union. The unionism promoted by the current government has little space for the identities of the devolved nations. It certainly has none for England which, as England, has no place in government constitutional thinking. The Dunlop review of intra-governmental relationships did not mention England, and indeed was not asked to. The abolition of English Votes for English Laws (as discussed recently on this blog) suggests no further desire to give the people of England ‘a voice’ as David Cameron once promised and reflects the belief that it is the Union, not its nations, that should be the focus of political action. – a point reinforced by the Leader of the Commons when he said ‘We have now restored authority in this Parliament to address the problems of voters in every part of the United Kingdom’. The recent (and much mocked) attempt by the English Department of Education to promote a One Britain One Nation Day (on a day when Scottish schools were on holiday) suggests a conscious decision to promote the English departments of the UK government as Union departments.

The paradox behind the English variant is that the Conservatives are only the largest party in England. Their Anglocentric British nationalism has appealed particularly to the ‘more English than British’ voters in recent years and these voters look to national government more than decentralisation to deliver. But the same voters also have a strong sense of English democracy and English interests that might become more salient if ‘levelling-up’ fails to materialise (and there is nothing in the recent past that suggests that centralised union state initiatives can tackle regional inequalities effectively). In other parts of England, including Chesham and Amersham where the Liberal Democrats recently won a dramatic by-election, it appears that voters are less keen on imposed changes in planning and transport, and it may be that these largely Remain voters are less swayed by Anglocentric British nationalism.

The English variant may still be on the rise, encouraged by the personality and politics of the Prime Minister, but it faces significant policy and political challenges.

This post is one of a series of posts by speakers at the Unit’s conference on the government’s constitutional reform agenda. John Denham appeared as part of the panel, Devolution and the future of the Union. The panel is available free of charge on YouTube and on our podcast.

About the author

Professor John Denham is Professorial Fellow on English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton and a former Cabinet minister..