Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER — a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism.
The accusation that our nation is “unbalanced” is regularly levelled on varying grounds: economic, representational, and so on. And the North East often comes particularly low down in the relevant comparative lists. I don’t get back home so much these days, but Durham always remains in my mind.
I’ve written many times before about my frustration at the sinecured politicians up there whose positions depend on the perpetuation of national imbalance. Their denial of the genuine advancements of recent times leads to public misinformation, not least regarding increased employment, educational opportunities, and economic output.
Much of what follows, however, can be read as applying to other parts of England, as well as the North East (and indeed to areas within the devolved nations). But it is important to recognise the differences within and between areas; it is not just that areas outside of London tend to have less economic and political strength, it is that this is unequally the case.
Recent claims about imbalance have most notably arisen regarding Brexit. To my mind, there are three quite separate questions that need addressing, here. The first relates to the extent to which areas such as the North East should be involved in the Brexit decision-making process; the second relates to the potential effect that Brexit may have upon such areas; and the third is a more general question about the satisfactoriness of the current situation regarding representation in the UK.
These three have often been conflated, however. Brexit may well unveil important political questions about UK devolution and decentralisation, but it should not be part of the Brexit process’s objective to seek to answer those questions hurriedly — and from on high — in order to bring about certain specific Brexit-related ends.
Questions about Brexit decision-making often arise in response to the input that the devolved nations have had in the process so far. The involvement of those nations — not least through representation on the Joint Ministerial Committee — has led to accusations that England and its constituent parts have not had the same privilege. However, it is surely clear that involvement in ongoing Brexit decision-making must be limited to existing units of representation. And we must remember, therefore, that — unlike the devolved nations — England is not such a unit, constitutionally, although other units of representation do exist within England.
Serious representational changes that have taken place over the last few years — including the introduction of Metro Mayors, and EVEL (or English Votes for English Laws, and English and Welsh Votes for English and Welsh Laws) — have understandably been overshadowed by a national focus on the challenges and opportunities of Brexit. But shouldn’t Metro Mayors be properly involved in the Brexit decision-making process, particularly on issues that specifically relate to them? Similarly, there is an argument that the elected Police and Crime Commissioners should have a clear say in Brexit issues pertaining to their remit — a lawyer friend of mine, for instance, argues that PCCs should be involved in UK decisions about the EU Arrest Warrant. None of this is to suggest that Metro Mayors or PCCs should be directly involved in the Brexit negotiations, but rather that their views should be officially taken on board — just as with the views of the devolved nations’ representatives — by the negotiating team.
To address the second question, regarding the potential effects of Brexit on the regions, it is important to remember the general fallibility of forecasts. We should also note the way in which specific Brexit forecasts have already proven incorrect — claims about the short-term impact of the referendum vote, for instance. Many respected economists have criticised the official forecasting approach taken so far, not least for its reliance on particular gravity trade models, and a seeming refusal to consider the more positive potential consequences of Brexit.
This leads us to a point related to my third question, about the satisfactoriness of the current system of political representation. Repeated calls for increased regional devolution is led by those with a certain agenda. They lament the way in which George Osborne is no longer leading the Conservatives’ decentralisation programme; they still resent the way in which John Prescott’s push for English devolution was overturned by a decisive 78 per cent vote against a proposed North-East regional assembly (on a 48 per cent turnout). Political change of great magnitude requires public support; academic “evidence” or strength of feeling from certain lobby groups is insufficient. We vote parties into power on manifesto promises, and the official decentralisation and devolution that has happened in the UK so far is as a result of deliberation.
To me, it is clear that the UK — as a whole, and in terms of its constituent parts — could benefit from greater decentralisation. I’m not alone in thinking this, although I’m aware that my free-market, pro-democracy, pro-Brexit reasoning differs from some other supporters of such an outcome. But, to repeat, that does not mean that I think new arrangements must be introduced now. And neither does it mean that the ideal and universally-desired unit of representation is necessarily “regional” — remember the North-East Assembly referendum! Rather, the democratic conversation must continue.
In the meantime, however, I would argue that the power that existing local authorities already hold should be fully enforced, not least to help their areas benefit from the opportunities of Brexit. Proper fiscal decentralisation — including the raising of tax revenues, as well as the controlling of spending — could help in terms of increasing choice and driving up standards, leading to greater specialisation, and the benefits of competition between areas. (On topic, it’s well worth reading this nice paper by Tom Packer and Matthew Sinclair.)
The 65 million people who live in the UK are vastly diverse. They are 65 million individuals, who make up various and multiple social groupings — groupings related to their age, gender, family situation, and many other factors, including their location. Factors that relate to locality — such as traditions of expertise, or the scarcity and abundance of certain resources — should certainly play into political decision-making. But the desire for fair, accurate, and efficient representation should not be hijacked by those pursuing separatist or other divisive ends.
Similarly, the opportunities of Brexit should be open to people throughout the UK — and that includes a new chance to discuss fundamental issues such as political representation. But that chance should not be exploited to try to impede or delegitimise the ongoing national process of leaving the EU.