On Monday 10 April Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics (LSE) spoke at a Constitution Unit seminar on devolution in England. The talk covered the history of English devolution, international comparisons, and some thoughts for the future amidst the current Brexit-dominated political landscape. Kasim Khorasanee reports.
English devolution – the delegation of powers, responsibility, and accountability from central Whitehall/Westminster government to sub-national levels – has had a fitful and uneven history. Its inevitable comparators are the devolution processes to Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales which took place from the late 1990s onwards. All three received national devolved governments and legislatures. More recently, Scotland and Wales have been the subjects of significant fiscal devolution. England, on the other hand, appears to have been left out in the cold – having no devolved government outside London, and both fewer MPs and lower public expenditure per head of population than other parts of the UK. Professor Travers explained that historically this trade-off was seen as necessary to maintain the Union – it was felt that an assertive England would dominate any federal union, for example its budget would be significantly larger than a federal UK government’s. However, devolution to the other UK nations had stirred something of a burgeoning sense of English identity.
English devolution – a brief history
Taking us on a canter through the history of English devolution, Travers began with Labour’s aborted attempts in the 1970s. The Kilbrandon Report (1973) recommended regional devolution within England, as well as legislatures for Wales and Scotland. The Layfield Report (1976) emphasised the importance of local accountability and responsibility for financial matters. Both failed to be implemented, and attempts at Scottish and Welsh devolution played a key part in the fall of the Labour government. The ensuing Conservative government in the 1980s brought to an end a number of significant devolved entities – metropolitan counties, the Greater London Council, and the Greater Manchester County Council. It was under Tony Blair’s Labour government that devolution received its new life. However, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland received devolved assemblies, regional devolution within England was stopped short by the North East referendum (2004). But the North East was offered ‘nothing like’ the powers devolved to Scotland and Wales. An opposition campaign, illustrating their point with a life-sized white elephant, convincingly defeated the devolution proposal by 78 per cent to 22 per cent. This left the idea of regions ‘doomed – possibly forever’. In terms of new elected bodies, the only significant change was hence the resurrection of London-wide government, with the establishment of the Greater London Assembly and London Mayor in 2000.
City regions and fiscal devolution
Travers flagged that ‘city regions’ have since taken over as the focus of English devolution efforts. He drew a parallel between Tony Blair’s presidential governing style, and his push for city regions to be led by further directly-elected mayors. This enthusiasm was carried on by David Cameron, who continued to build on his predecessor’s policy. City regional mayors were made a condition of greater devolution to combined authorities. Travers emphasised that the current legislative framework for English devolution envisaged highly ‘bespoke’ devolution across the country. In doing so he highlighted that this could result in wide – seemingly random – disparities in the functions devolved to different city regions. One area which appeared quite resistant to change, however, was fiscal devolution. Although the aforementioned Layfield Report, and more recently the London Finance Commission’s reports (2013 & 2017), called for localised responsibility for taxation, central government has traditionally been highly reluctant to implement this. Travers acknowledged that responsibility for local business rates was being devolved to local government by 2020, but pointed out that it was being offset by the phasing out of the central grant to councils.
To put the UK’s lack of fiscal devolution in context Travers drew on international comparisons. He cited OECD statistics setting out the UK’s sub-national tax-raising as 1.6 per cent of GDP. By comparison Sweden, Canada, and Germany all had figures of over 10 per cent, the OECD average sitting at 8.8 per cent. The UK was very much an outlier in this respect (see below).
Similarly there are far fewer taxes devolved to London when compared with other capitals such as New York, Berlin, Tokyo, and Paris. In sum there would have to be far more radical change than currently envisaged to bring the UK into alignment with OECD trends.
Current government policy
From speaking to civil servants, Travers identified that Theresa May’s Conservative government intended to shift its emphasis away from devolution. The current ongoing processes for the May 2017 elected mayors, the 2018 mayoral election in Sheffield, and the potential for a ‘North of Tyne’ combined authority and mayor, were the extent of the devolution policy horizon. In a piece of analysis which drew chuckles from the audience he cited the number of UK budget mentions of the phrases ‘devolution’, ‘Northern Powerhouse’, and ‘mayor’ between March 2013 and March 2017. There was a spike in mentions after the coalition – between 2015 and 2016 the average number of mentions of the three phrases per budget document was 31, 14, and 13 respectively. However this dropped sharply in Philip Hammond’s March 2017 budget to eight, one, and zero mentions respectively.
Mayors and communal identities
Travers suggested that the experience of London indicated that the introduction of directly elected mayors for city regions across the UK could have significant implications. As well as having a generally higher turnout compared to local elections, London’s mayoral elections have helped cement the idea of London as a political unit in people’s minds. Devolution can reinforce a sense of difference from the whole, and Travers drew attention to the fact that the three significant ‘Remain’ regions in the EU referendum – Greater London, Northern Ireland, and Scotland – were also the subjects of significant devolution (though the balance of votes in Wales was for ‘Leave’). In the case of London this sense of civic identity had not yet gained enough momentum to push for Scottish or Welsh-style devolution. However, Travers did note an increase in the number of news articles discussing London independence. He suspected that the incoming 2017 elected mayors would – as London’s mayor had historically done – lobby for increased powers once in office. As a body the mayors could hence potentially become a lobby for English devolution. Given the consistent electoral popularity of London’s mayors, and some of the high profile candidates for the incoming May 2017 mayoral elections, these positions might also increasingly prove a staging ground for national political careers.
In considering why England was so centralised Professor Travers reflected on a variety of explanations – the historic power of the Crown, the end of Empire, and the conflicts with local government across the 1970s and 80s. Ultimately, he expressed uncertainty about the reason, but suggested that national politicians in the UK appear to instinctively have little faith in sub-national government. Ultimately the future of English devolution is tied up with wider forces – the fate of the Union, austerity and the financing of the state, and the Brexit process.
About the speaker
Professor Tony Travers is a Professor at the LSE, and Director of the LSE London research centre
About the author
Kasim Khorasanee is a Research Volunteer at The Constitution Unit