The English Question

Posted on January 17, 2014

It is worth contemplating the possibility of a scenario in which Scotland votes for independence in September and a new Government holds an ‘in/out’ referendum on the remainder of the UK’s membership of the EU in 2017 and the vote produces an ‘out’ result.  Whether it is of the social democratic  variety espoused by the SNP in Scotland, or the populist nationalism of UKIP in England, nationalism is having a profound effect on British politics.  Contested membership of the EU and the salience of immigration in the political debate are two examples of where political parties responses are fumbling and confused , and were these two referenda to result in Scottish independence and a British exit from the EU, the shocks  to the existing political system would be enormous.

What has this got to do with local government? The reality is that Britain has an extraordinary concentration of political and economic power in London and whatever their result  the impact of these referenda only serve to reinforce that position. None of the major political parties are seriously thinking about any kind of constitutional settlement which addresses the issue. There is a long tradition of parties praising local government to skies in opposition  and promising all kinds of devolution of powers and local taxation when they come to power, only for this to be forgotten the moment they actually obtain power. This is particularly striking in relation to local tax raising powers. The proposed  ‘mansion tax’ – a very poor substitute for a council tax revaluation (let’s not go down the path of the regressive nature of the council tax itself just now) will of course be collected by the Treasury not local government. Labour has always seen the Treasury as a force for good, especially in the Brown era – think public expenditure and tax credits amongst other things. But the power of the Treasury, combined with the influence and economic power of London and the City in particular, has hugely distorted the social and economic balance of England, and the rest of the UK. This sense of being ignored by metropolitan elites has certainly driven the rise in support for UKIP and a more general disenchantment with politics generally, where a cynical view that the elite looks after its own has been confirmed for some by the scramble for parliamentary seats by the sons of Labour grandees (think Stephen Kinnock, Will Straw and David Prescott).

A crisis of legitimacy is developing in England where the kind of top-down statism perceived to come from Whitehall and Westminster is exacerbated both by current government policies and by the  dysfunctional and systematic inequality generated by markets  and inequitable public service provision over many years, both of  which have their roots in a culture of ‘Whitehall knows best’. The problem is that a lot of people don’t agree with that any more (if they ever did) and the problem for political parties is that voters are expressing that at the ballot box, where support for the major parties is ebbing away by the day, whether it be to nationalists, UKIP, independents like Bristol Mayor George Ferguson, or simply by not voting at all.

Many Conservatives would dispute the idea that they were a party that supported the long arm of the state. But folks in local government know better. Whether it is Eric Pickles sounding off about waste collection systems (a subject he has been mercifully silent on recently) or the wickedness of councils raising revenue through ‘excessive’ parking charges, as he caps council tax rises at 2% and then decides that councils aren’t playing the game if they raise them by 1.99% and proposes that they should be capped at 1.5% in future, micro-management of local government is what Whitehall loves doing most. That is of course when it isn’t wriggling out of George Osborne’s public expenditure cuts by loading them onto errr…local government.  National Trust Chairman Simon Jenkins encapsulated this in an article recently ‘Osborne talks tough but acts like a Labour Chancellor’ (Guardian 8 January 2014) in which he pointed out that in reality the really big loser in the recent rounds of austerity has been local government who have ‘…borne the lion’s share of the burden so as to relieve Whitehall budgets of real pain.’

The rising resentment of many outside the corridors of power about the absence of a political voice and accompanying economic levers for many different English communities is fuelling this splintering of political support and adding to the crisis of legitimacy. Yet there is plenty of evidence that complex policy challenges ranging from entrenched pockets of social disadvantage and isolation, the resource implications of a combination of long term care for the elderly and obesity and other lifestyle diseases amongst younger people, or the impacts of catastrophic climate change, are best addressed at local level, a reality briefly acknowledged  in the dying days of the Brown Government through its ‘Total Place’  programme.  

 The idea of devolving more economic and political power across England is hardly a new one and a few nugatory experiments such as the Regional Development Agencies have been tried and dropped. Lots of politicians in all political parties pay lip service to the idea that the public realm means more than just the central state, but if this crisis of legitimacy isn’t to start taking an uglier form, a road map of how power will be devolved  to cities and counties in the next few years is urgently needed. A satisfactory answer to the ‘English Question’  presses, as these referenda loom  and whatever their outcomes it won’t go away any more.

This article first appeared on the INLOGOV blog on 17 January 2014 and was re-posted on the Public Finance blog on 27 January 2014