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Taking back control?

Michael Kenny, professor of public policy at the University of Cambridge and the co-director of the British Academy’s ‘Governing England’ programme, considers the impact of Brexit on devolved administrations and combined authorities.

Is Brexit likely to result in a new consolidation of power at the heart of the British state, or will the powers repatriated from Brussels be dispersed across the nations and regions of the UK? This is one of a number of keynote questions associated with the UK’s departure from the EU which remain very hard to answer with any certainty.

For many Brexiteers, ‘taking back control’ implied a restoration of powers to Britain’s parliamentary democracy and invoked an older pattern of thinking which conceived of the UK as a unitary state. This way of thinking has long been belied and challenged by the establishment of lower tiers of elected government – in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Even the much more limited devolution enjoyed by Greater London since the early 2000s, and the administrative powers awarded to the suite of newly elected metro mayors across England, do not tally easily with the centralist way of thinking about sovereignty which still prevails in British political circles.

Brexit looks very likely to accelerate the collision between old habits of thinking and the realities of a multi-tiered system of government. For a start, it looks highly likely that the Scottish and Welsh parliaments may not grant their ‘consent’ to the passage of the ‘Exiting the EU’ Bill which is currently making its way through Westminster. Should that happen, the UK government could be forced to take the unprecedented step of setting to one side the well-established ‘Sewel’ convention. Such a move might re-light separatist fires north of the border and would certainly accentuate the constitutional instability which Brexit has already engendered.

The particular issue at the heart of this dispute is the question of whether powers in areas such as agriculture and energy should come back to London or should be passed to Scotland, given that these are, in technical terms, devolved areas of competence.

In England, meanwhile, the mayors of London and Manchester – both senior Labour figures – have made clear that they will vigorously oppose a deal with the EU which amounts to a ‘hard’ form of Brexit. The combined authorities and their high-profile political leaders may well become a thorn in the side of the government on this and other issues.

Yet wiser voices within the Conservative Party urge a very different perspective on English devolution. For figures such as Michael Heseltine, these experiments in new forms of city-regional government represent an opportunity which a currently beleaguered central government should grab, not reject. Devolution represents one of the few tools available to the centre to tackle the glaring regional disparities in economic performance and wealth, which are the source of profound cleavages within the UK and are significantly inhibiting economic growth. In her speech at the Conservative Party conference, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson offered a frank assessment of the implications of this pattern of economic asymmetry. And what she argued about Scotland applies to many parts of England too.

More generally, in a context where central government is politically hamstrung and likely to be distracted by the volume and complexity of legislation which Brexit will necessitate for many years to come, it may well make sense to promote and support innovation and development at other levels of government. Should these newly established authorities and their leaders fail, then it is Westminster politicians who will pay some of the price, as an increasingly disenchanted public will return to the habit of expecting central government to put right what local government has got wrong.

But, should figures like Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester or Andy Street in the West Midlands start to devise innovative, locally sensitive and effective responses to some of the major challenges their areas face, then there is a much better prospect that the UK will move forward towards a new, more balanced settlement after Brexit. If leaving the EU really was about regaining sovereignty, then it may be time to give meaningful control back to some of England’s cities and localities.


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