Rhys ab Owen MS points to the contradictions at the heart of the UK Government’s Levelling Up White Paper.
After a long delay, the Westminster Government has finally released its Levelling Up White Paper. A supposed attempt to save the union, fix the decades of neglect that most of the UK has suffered and deflect Tory MPs’ attention from writing letters to the 1922 Committee.
It is a poor attempt on all three counts. Either they do not care or they are so incapacitated by the numerous scandals that they are unable to apply any real thought to anything else.
The White Paper works to highlight the reasons for, and potential fixes to, the problem of mass uneven development which has run rampant in the United Kingdom for centuries. I have two main concerns about the paper. Firstly, its ability to successfully highlight the problems while offering few tenable ways to fix them, and, secondly, the disparities between the Westminster Government’s comments in the paper about the opportunities of devolution compared to its contrary active policy choices.
The White Paper is not some radical agenda to redistribute, restructure and rebuild the British state, but boils down to the idea that London can be replicated elsewhere
The whole British economy is London-centric – I remember reading a few years ago in the Financial Times that there are more cranes in London than in the rest of the UK put together. The recent investment in Crossrail is another example of policy makers continuing to spend in London rather than seriously combating the issues elsewhere.
It makes sense to them that the strength of the economic powerhouse of the city-state is placed at the centre of the Levelling Up White Paper. Despite acknowledging the uneven development of the country is a problem, Westminster politicians just cannot seem to pull themselves away from the idea. It is in this context that we should look to the content of the White Paper – it is not some radical agenda to redistribute, restructure and rebuild the British state, but boils down to the idea that London can be replicated elsewhere – something it terms the ‘Medici effect’. Why else would the first 16 pages be dedicated to a historic analysis of city-states (or as page five describes it: “city-centric growth”)?
Firstly, I want to highlight the irony of this situation. Once again, there is a slight understanding – even if you have to read between the lines – that these are policy choices which have continuously prioritised the growth of one region at the expense of another. We can see this in the dichotomy between the greater Cardiff area (which is often constituted as south Wales) and the Bristol area. There are a few examples here. When the Senedd asked for the devolution of air passenger duty to Wales (something which has long been devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland), the request was denied. Why? The answer is simple: it would negatively impact Bristol Airport. Or, in a similar vein, how rail was only electrified up to Cardiff to make trips between Cardiff, Bristol and London quicker. Are the people living to the west of Cardiff not worth investing in?
But this is not my main concern with the Levelling Up White Paper. It is symbolic of the paralysis of British politics, a paralysis that has gripped both Labour and the Conservatives. It is the admittance that there is a problem, but the lack of vision, or of radicalism to fix it. The British system has been noted, by hundreds of people, in hundreds of countries, over hundreds of years, for being one of the most centralised states in the world. This White Paper admits it, Sir Keir Starmer admits it, but they do not really want to fix it. London and all its trappings have too much of a hold over them.
Robust debate and agenda-setting research.
Support Wales’ leading independent think tank.
The proposed response is always devolution, but never a lot of it. A piecemeal amount of devolution to placate nationalist sentiments in the Celtic fringe, often in reaction to a shock election result, or to attempt to solve regional inequality and State-led uneven development. This White Paper proposes the latter, but only for English regions (and only for those that want it). The problem here is that there will be some mismatched, patched-up version of the UK in the future where certain areas of England have achieved devolution (although, as to what extent, the paper is unclear) while others have not. This means that some areas like Cornwall, Yorkshire, or Essex might have devolved powers, while their neighbours such as Devon, Suffolk and Lancashire might not. Evidently this is bound to fail.
The unwillingness to change the inner workings of the British state to a federal model, or confederal model, or even a more decentralised model is ingrained into the thinking of politicians, policy makers and civil servants in Whitehall
The unwillingness to change the inner workings of the British state to a federal model, or confederal model, or even a more decentralised model is ingrained into the thinking of politicians, policy makers and civil servants in Whitehall. They are paralysed by tradition and the need to maintain the notion of parliamentary sovereignty.
The White Paper states that any region of England that wants it will have “powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution.” In the current context we could argue that this would be powers equal to Scotland’s. But, when the Senedd, or Wales, have asked for parity and to devolve broadcasting; the Crown Estate; air passenger duty; energy; transportation; taxation; policing; justice; or powers to make St David’s Day a bank holiday, we hear the same thing over and over and over again: No – Whitehall Knows Best.
This Conservative government has done everything in its power to claw back any decentralisation it can get away with. I have written and spoken before about the increase use of Legislative Consent Memoranda by the UK Government that are passing, on a frightening rate, laws within devolved areas.
The Levelling Up Paper cannot move beyond the ideology of parliamentary sovereignty and over-centralisation is baked into every sentence, of every paragraph, of every page. Successive Westminster governments have seen the problem of growing regional and national inequality on the horizon and used devolution to paper over the cracks and run away from structural changes that would radically shift the centres of powers to more local settings. The Levelling Up Paper is the next iteration of this foiled attempt to pass the buck of constitutional changes and kick it down the road for some future Government to deal with. This paper gives the Conservative government the rhetoric for change, while at the same time they work to recentralise the British economy, its social sphere and its political power.
All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.