The Guardian view on Westminster and devolution: cede real control

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

Boris Johnson should appreciate the importance to voters of feeling connected to centres of power. After all, he headed the pro-Brexit campaign that made such effective use of a promise to “take back control” from Brussels. But the prime minister did not anticipate an appetite for taking control back from Westminster – from him. Britain has a tradition of highly centralised government. There are many layers of devolved institutions, but the rhetoric of putting real power in the hands of local communities always runs ahead of the reality.

The pandemic has exposed gaps and disparities. Measures taken by the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have diverged from the English system because health is a devolved matter. The prime minister finds his reach truncated on the biggest issue facing the UK. In the public eye, Edinburgh and Cardiff have grown at London’s expense. That is frustrating for Mr Johnson, which would explain in part why he has been so reluctant to deal with English regions as equal partners in developing local pandemic responses. Fear of ceding any more power, combined with temperamental mistrust of anyone outside a tiny circle of advisers, has led to friction between No 10 and leaders in the areas worst affected.

Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s mayor, has risen in status beyond what his limited constitutional powers afford because failures of central government created the vacancy for a local figurehead. Some Tories in Westminster complain that Mr Burnham has been playing politics to inflate his standing, but their colleagues in the north-west recognise that the mayor took up a baton that Downing Street dropped.

Tory MPs across northern England and Wales are becoming increasingly anxious and vocal about neglect by their leader. Many have joined the Northern Research Group, a lobbying caucus modelled on the pro-Brexit European Research Group. It has enough members to deprive Mr Johnson of a Commons majority, so it cannot be ignored. Its members demand more concrete financial commitments to match the prime minister’s pledge to “level up” underperforming regions. They also want route maps out of higher-tier lockdown conditions, fearing that commercial restrictions will exacerbate a north-south economic divide and feed a narrative of political betrayal in former Labour strongholds. The Tories won those seats on borrowed votes in 2019 and fear that their purchase will slip unless reinforced with swift economic gains.

It will take more than cash to fix Mr Johnson’s northern English woes. There are deep cultural currents in play. The centrifugal forces are not as strong as in Scotland and Wales, where boundaries of nationhood are involved, but there is an analogous issue of local identity and resentment of ill-informed decisions imposed by a remote Westminster.

Effective public health management demands greater devolution of power. For that to work, local politicians will need to be more responsible and more accountable for financial matters. That involves the centre ceding some control over tax-and-spend, which the Treasury resists. These are questions of long-term reform that cannot be settled in the midst of a crisis; nor does it seem plausible that a man as deficient in long-term thinking as Mr Johnson is capable of rising to the challenge. But the warning signs are clear enough. Power is shifting away from London, not because of changes to the constitution, but because an incompetent and arrogant centre cedes authority to local politicians and institutions that have a better claim to representing local people.