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The Conservatives, Devolution, and Nation Building

Sam Pallis

04.08.2020

At every opportunity the government have thwarted local authorities’ involvement in combating the COVID-19 virus. Though there are legal instruments to ensure that the response to the virus is locally led, they have chosen to ignore these mechanisms.

What insight does this give us into the government’s approach to devolving powers to a local level beyond the crisis? Ideas such as moving the House of Lords out of London have been floated but what might we expect beyond this? There are three broad principles the Tories seem to be developing, in order to use devolution to localities and regions as a way of recasting state intervention as an act of nation building.

First, the Tories are going to pour money into their newly acquired ‘red wall’ seats, and this will largely be focused on infrastructure. Secondly, the Tories are hell bent against giving local authorities more power for fear of Labour councils undermining their agenda. However, that does not equate to walking away from devolution, but rather embracing instruments to forward regionalism such as elected Mayors, allowing them to localise their project of nation building without seceding fundamental powers from their centralising Rooseveltian project around infrastructure projects, such as transport and the skills agenda. Finally, any devolutionary powers will be framed around doling out the rewards of Brexit: powers over ‘our’ borders, money and laws. As we move towards what has been dubbed an age of autarky, even as Britain cedes yet more power in trade deals, the Conservatives will look to re-cast this as the nation embracing its newfound ‘independence’. Overall, these three strands frame a proactive state in post-brexit Britain as ushering in an epoch of national re-founding with the rewards of our ‘newly’ found sovereignty grounded in the local, yet driven by Westminster.

Before the pandemic, the Tories’ policy centred on pumping billions into grand infrastructure programmes. The rewards of Brexit were not going to be the renewal of the welfare system, but a grand project of national rebuilding. Thus, the Conservatives were willing to invert Thatcherite discourse that state projects would lead to dependency on the state, asserting instead that state intervention can lead to growth, employment and nation building (in contrast to redistribution, which is still cast as creating dependence through benefit claims). As a result, the Tories have attempted to reconceptualise the relationship between dependency and the state. Work stimulated by the state has been positioned as a legitimate aspiration of the ‘deserving poor’ looking to embrace a newly found national spirit. 

Yet, in some ways, this agenda becomes more difficult in the age of Covid. Though the Conservatives may embrace tax rises, and Cummings might even push for a diminished wealth tax to outflank Labour, this is not their natural predilection. Neither are they keen on pushing for a rise in wages, to plug the £337 billion deficit they are forecast to hit this year. The difficulty for the government’s pre-Covid approach in today’s context is that infrastructure projects are long-term prospects, with many proposals not likely to pay off before the next election.

In addition to infrastructure spending, then, devolution will also be a central feature of Johnson’s agenda. This will not be focused on local authorities, but rather combined authorities, where two or more local authorities come together under the leadership of an elected ‘metro mayor’ – the model championed by George Osborne. This emphasis upon elected mayors underlines the Conservatives’ growth model, which is centred on finance and property as the cornerstone of regional regeneration with metro mayors modelled on their American counterparts, 'dealmakers' who can attract investment from business leaders outside of the region.  Furthermore, the Conservatives have employed this as a strategy to contain the abilities of Labour councils plotting a different path from Westminster and this seems to be the continued direction of travel as stated in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto:

“Our ambition is for full devolution across England, building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners and others, so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny.”

We are still waiting for the publication of the English Devolution White Paper to see what the exact plans for devolution will look like. There seems little chance that they will include reconstituting the House of Lords on a regional or elected basis; even if the second chamber did move out of London (as suggested in the press) this would likely be purely aesthetic. The question then becomes what powers are they going to give to metro mayors?  Potentially, this might include some powers to shape the Conservatives’ points-based immigration system in relation to local economic need. Provinces of Canada, except for Quebec, are able to nominate the immigrants they deem necessary, based on a province’s needs. Labour, for a period, flirted with similar proposals from IPPR. Canada is a federal model – very different to the UK – but devolving certain powers over immigration to elected mayors would give the Conservatives a much-needed frame of nativism that would allow infrastructure projects to prioritise ‘local people’.  Furthermore, it would ground their project of post-Brexit nation building within local communities, whilst being governed centrally. Yet, there are perils in this strategy for the Tories: will it lead to calls for further devolution and proto-federalism? Moreover, devolution may hinder as well as help the Conservatives’ other goals of nation building and infrastructure investment.

Where does this leave England’s relationship to the other nations of the UK? If we look at the post-2019 General Election landscape there is much that calls into question the notion that the Conservative coalition is based solely on English votes. In 2019, the Welsh Conservatives gained 6 seats, largely seats they had held in late 1980s or 1990s, but they came within a whisker of gaining seats they had never held such as Alyn and Deeside. Likewise, in Scotland under the helm of Ruth Davidson we saw a major revival of the Conservative fortunes in 2017 with them gaining 12 seats. Even in 2019, where the Conservatives lost 7 seats, they still retained 6 and maintained a vote share in the mid-20s. In comparison, the Conservatives under William Hague, Michael Howard and David Cameron all polled in the mid-teens north of the border. Scotland does seem a more diminished prospect than Wales; nonetheless, for the Conservatives it cannot be said their electoral prospects remain solely within the dimensions of England.    

Boris Johnson recently visited Orkney, announcing spending pledges for Scotland and declaring that his government’s record on COVID has in fact protected the Scottish people. This visit was triggered by Nicola Sturgeon’s sky-rocketing approval rating and polls showing a new-found appetite for independence. The quandary that Johnson faces in transposing his agenda on regionalism to the devolved authorities boils down to the Sewel convention. Local government is a devolved matter across all three of the UK’s devolved authorities, and the custom of the Sewel convention is that parliament does not pass law on devolved area without obtaining consent from the respective devolved nations. The legislation for elected mayors relates to England and Wales but not Scotland nor North Ireland. Currently eight regions across England have bought into devolution deals and metro mayors, with more potentially in the pipe line. Wales despite being eligible has not embraced metro mayors yet, with a failed referendum in 2004. Opposition parties have sought to drum up support for metro mayors in Scotland but to no avail, and in Northern Ireland they have not been embraced either. At the moment it is difficult to see how the Conservative vision for regionalism can extend beyond England without a major shift in their electoral prospects in Wales and Scotland.

This raises one of the central paradoxes of British sovereignty post Brexit,  “we” will not regain “our” laws. There is no “our” – there is only a government at a said moment legislating.  Because of the UK’s centralised Crown-in-Parliament sovereignty, the law which can said to be “regained” is this unfettered right of the Westminster parliament. What the Conservatives are proposing is a very British constitutional re-founding, unconstrained by what they see as any form of foreign codification, such as the EU. Their ambition is that regionalism can amplify their project of nation building, and that if their bets on Brexit and Covid pay off they could renew the union without having to concede any further erosion of Westminster’s power. Can you continue to foster a unionism that is centred on the laws of Westminster?  The Conservatives seem to believe that Brexit can refresh unionism rather than destroy it, and their conception of nation building can reach beyond divides. Like most of Johnson’s manoeuvres, this is a gamble and one that could stretch the fabric of the union to its limits.

At the next election, the Conservatives will want to say: we have delivered Brexit, now let ‘the nation’ enjoy the fruits of Brexit. This is where both the local and infrastructure come into play. The Conservatives will potentially assert that, because of their efforts, ‘local people’ are getting the jobs they deserve. Labour meanwhile are likely to embrace key workers as emblematic figures, deserving of just reward for their sacrifices, in the form of the wages, benefits and infrastructure. Therefore, both parties will be searching for the narrative equivalent of 1945 – a re-founding moment – and devolution could play a major role in their efforts. Labour should embrace metro mayors as pivotal players in the labour movement and plot an alternative regionalism to the Conservatives’, which is not founded on the spread of financialisation and property speculation across the country, but an economic settlement built upon dignity that gives back to those who have sacrificed so much. Regionalism, bolstered by a German banking model, could be fashioned as a check upon unscrupulous capital which can provide financial independence for those who put so much in but are caught in a web of debt and low pay. Beyond this, if Starmer is looking for a constitutional settlement to rescue the union and champion regionalism, then he could do worse than to look to Canada, which may not offer a ‘radical federalism’ but does certainly provide a workable model that could be integrated into our current hotchpotch system.

Sam Pallis is a Labour councillor in Hackney and a PhD candidate in History. He has previously written for the New Statesman and the Independent.

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