Last month the Constitution Unit published What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?, the first report of its Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. To mark the report’s launch, a seminar was convened to discuss its findings, their implications, and possible future avenues of research. The project’s research assistant, James Cleaver, summarises the discussion.
A panel of three speakers was convened to discuss the report’s findings: Professor Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, who is leading the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project; Paula Surridge, Senior Lecturer in Political Sociology at the University of Bristol and Deputy Director of UK in a Changing Europe; and James Johnson, founder of J.L. Partners and former Senior Opinion Research and Strategy Adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit and a Co-Investigator on the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions. You can watch the event here.
Alan Renwick outlined the structure of the research project and summarised the report’s key results. He focused on three overarching findings: while there exists broad satisfaction with democracy, people have very little trust in politicians; most members of the public want politicians who are honest, have integrity, and operate within the rules; and people generally prefer not to concentrate power in the hands of a few politicians, but rather to spread it to parliament, non-politicians, and the wider public. You can read more about the key findings of the report, and how they compare with other studies, in a recent post on this blog.
John Denham discusses how England is becoming more centralisedby 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.