Jack Airey is Policy Exchange’s Head of Place.
“Re-inventing patriotism, refreshing the mandate of the UK nation state and creating a new national consensus,” Michael Gove has argued, “is the Unionist mission of our times.” At Policy Exchange we agree with this sentiment. Regardless of the Brexit arrangements that are ultimately agreed with the European Union and brought into law by Parliament, it has been clear for some time that the case for the Union needs to be made anew.
On Conservative Home, Paul Goodman has suggested a new Department for the Union should lead this strategy of national renewal. After decades of half-hearted support for the Union from successive governments, an effective strategy requires intellectual creativity and greater readiness to challenge nationalist arguments. Convincing younger generations who dislike nationalism but are apathetic to the Union should be seen as the priority. It is they, after all, who would be most impacted by the economic effects of dismantling the UK Single Market. And it is on their shoulders that the responsibility for protecting the Union will eventually fall.
In the second of Policy Exchange’s three-part series on the Union for ConservativeHome, we argue that closer economic integration achieved through better infrastructure should be central to the story of modern Unionism. Upgrading the UK’s infrastructure is an opportunity to bind places closer through trains and trade, as Policy Exchange recommended in its report Modernising the United Kingdom. It can mean we truly live in a ‘one nation’ country.
The Government’s infrastructure strategy should have two focal points, the first of which is improving cross-border infrastructure. Devolved administrative boundaries should not in principle artificially hinder cross-border growth, yet in practice too often they do. Projects of this nature have been mooted in the past. They have, however, been driven by other necessities. For instance, in an attempt to get Northern Irish Unionist MPs to abstain in a 1979 confidence vote on James Callaghan’s premiership, Roy Hattersley urged (unsuccessfully) the then Prime Minister to build a pipeline from mainland UK to Northern Ireland.
A number of projects are possible, both ones that the Government can deliver on its own and others that can be delivered in partnership with devolved administrations. Enhancing road capacity to better link North Wales to Merseyside and Greater Manchester, for instance, will be a no-brainer for Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, and Ken Skates, the Minister for Economy and Transport in the Welsh devolved government. Whatever the case, the Treasury should take a more ambitious approach to funding new transport infrastructure projects across the whole of the UK, rather than just those that begin and end in England.
Priority should be given to investments that support jobs and prosperity, opening up labour markets and also those that encourage more sustainable, greener use of transport, as well as improving the amenity of communities. Some projects might not literally span two sides of a border, but their delivery would yield benefits across the UK. For example, improving the capacity and quality of road networks around Belfast Harbour and Cairnryan Port would make life easier for people using the ferry service that runs between north-eastern Northern Ireland and south-western Scotland.
The Government’s ambition to connect the UK better should not be confined to transport. It should also launch a new Forest of Britain project: a green spine running the full length of Britain. This would consist of a single, unbroken, two mile-wide line of protected natural habitats from John O’Groats to Land’s End, via the east of Wales. It should aim to connect as many existing nature conservation sites as possible along its route. As one of the longest rewilding projects in the world, it would attract tourists to areas along its route for walking, riding and other activities.
The second focal point of this strategy to better connect the UK should be giving places more control over how infrastructure funding is spent in their area. It is local people and local businesses who know the projects that will make the most difference to their daily lives and operations. Local leaders should be entrusted to decide how money is spent rather than Whitehall civil servants. The best returns on infrastructure investments, after all, tend to come from smaller projects that improve connectivity in communities and within towns and cities.
Increasing local control over spending on regional infrastructure is essential to a wider programme of devolving economic powers post-Brexit – what the Government has already called its “levelling up” agenda. Places across the UK should be given more powers actively to shape their local product and labour markets, taking more responsibility for improving economic efficiency. But as part of the bargain, policy makers must also raise their game in terms of analysis and audit. Systematic evaluation is needed to identify what works from what disappoints, along with consistent financial reporting across local authorities and devolved institutions across the UK.
Demonstrating the value of the Union and making the case about why it matters to our future is a chance to appeal to voters who resent nationalism and separatism. Closer connection between nations and places through better infrastructure is a critical part of that. It must be at the heart of today’s Unionist mission.