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The wars of the regions

By SEC Newgate team
21 October 2020
Public Affairs

By Simon Gentry, Public Affairs

Devolution does strange things.  People who know a bit about American politics, and to some degree the EU, are aware of the inherent pressures that exist between the various levels of government there.  In the US there are frequent spats between the federal government in Washington DC and state governors and governments despite the constitution being settled.  These outbursts of angst are especially apparent in disaster or crisis situations.

The United Kingdom is now experiencing this for the first time.  Twenty or so years after Tony Blair’s government began the devolution of power to Edinburgh and Cardiff, a project continued to varying degrees by succeeding administrations and extended to London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, is now being sorely tested.

The pandemic has, for some regional politicians, been a bit of a boon. Nicola Sturgeon’s performance appears to have helped her party and the nationalist cause in Scotland.  Her example has been a template that Mark Drakeford appears to be copying in Wales, and is now a template for others such as Andy Burnham and, as of today, Sadiq Khan.

Of course, as local politicians they are looking after the interests of their constituents.  That’s a cornerstone of our political system.  But it can also be divisive and drive an ‘us and them’ mentality that many in Westminster fear will end up breaking the Union.  Independence for London might appeal to some, but it is probably a bit out of reach.  In Scotland and Wales, however, the situation is very different.

That is one set of fault lines, but another is rapidly revealing themselves.  Just as in 2009/2010, in the teeth of the crisis everyone was urging the government to spend, spend, spend.  It’s when a new administration arrived and took a look at the books that the penny began to drop.  Ten years of austerity followed, the price of restoring the country’s reputation for fiscal rectitude.  For millions it meant a real fall in income and a deterioration in their quality of life.

Some believe that we could see ten times more spent on this crisis. Ten times more debt that needs to be serviced, if not ever repaid, in years to come.  News that the Department for Transport is demanding higher fares, a massive extension of the congestion charging zone and huge tax increases as the price for bailing out a now empty London transport system is a foretaste of what’s to come.

Overlaid across devolution, the debt crisis that is building makes for a very uncomfortable political future for the United Kingdom.