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Artillery Row

The devolution delusion

Britain is stuck with the recycling of failed ideas

Ever feel that you are stuck in a time machine? These days I all too often have the sense of having inadvertently stumbled into the Tardis — along with everyone else in Britain. First there was the “Summer (and now Winter) of Discontent”, with hyperinflation, unions on strike and enough chaos to convince anyone they’d headed back to the 70s. Then on Monday, it seemed as though Britain had been transported two decades forward to the 90s, when Keir Starmer met with Gordon Brown in Leeds to set out a plan for devolution.

“Didn’t we already do that?” I thought to myself. Not everyone shared this sense of deja vu. The Guardian marvelled at Brown’s proposals that mayors, councils and devolved governments should be given more powers — saying that these would “change the face of the country, largely for the better” and iNews called them promising”. Keir Starmer boasted that “people will get the change they deserve”. What change? 

I can’t help thinking that everyone’s lost the plot

Far from sharing the devo-delirium, I can’t help thinking that everyone’s lost the plot. After all, we’ve been living the devolution experiment for the last 20+ years, and it only takes a short journey in the Tardis again to see evidence of how it’s all panned out. It was a mere year ago that Mark Drakeford could be found ordering Welsh supermarkets to wrap up aisles of “non-essential items”, including tupperware, to exercise his extended political powers. Meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon diverged at every possible moment from England on Coronavirus strategy.

According to the tenets of devolution, Drakeford and Sturgeon were simply displaying “localism in action” back in the tupperware days. In the mind of a devo-devotee, the sharing of powers, far and wide, should promote the democratic health and unity of a nation, extinguishing calls for independence referendums and all urges to pull away. Even when confronted with piles of evidence during lockdown that devolution may have the complete opposite effect, its proponents don’t want to know. It is somehow the “change [we] deserve”.

That’s not to say devolution, as a theory, is wrong or ill intentioned. It seeks to address very real problems in the UK. It is true that politics is too London-centric, and a centralised government can never be “in touch” with everyone around the country. But no one wants to contemplate the fact that the “cure” might have been worse than the disease. Drakeford, Sturgeon and occasionally Northern Ireland’s infighting with the UK Government is the tip of the iceberg. The UK is increasingly a set of unpleasant “sibling administrations” constantly bickering with each other, thanks to decisions made in the era Starmer wants to revisit.

Chief Bickerers are, of course, Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham. Extraordinarily, having been rinsed by these two on the television throughout 2020–2021, the Conservatives paved the way for more of their ilk in 2022 — with a plan to devolve more power. Like a spouse who allows their partner to take on a lover in the hope this may reinvigorate their withered sex life, it was the last attempt of a government losing its allure. Banned bikini adverts and the destroyed livelihoods of car drivers across London are the reality of what Tories call “levelling up”.

The Government has enabled mini-dictatorships across the UK

Sprouting from this administrative horror show are numerous petty bureaucracies across the country. Instead of advertising the ideal of devolution — a Postman Pat vision of Britain, in which locals are on first-name terms and the streets are always clean — councils around the UK showcase something distinctly alien and unattractive. Were local communities “empowered”, for instance, when Thurrock Council was found to have a £500 million hole in its budget? Do the people of Haringey and Oxford, who have repeatedly protested after councils stuck up Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (blockades for cars) without consulting them, feel they have “more democracy” through the decentralisation of power? Was it “localism in action” and “levelling up” when it was revealed that LTN fines have cost London drivers £100 million over three years?

Whatever ills devolution seeks to tackle, there is at best mixed evidence that it has improved Britain. A more accurate conclusion is that devolution has simply given third-rate bureaucrats carte blanche to test ideologies they contemplate for the world on a smaller stage. In the quest to extend Westminster powers to the whole country, which the Government could have simply done through more Darlington Treasuries, it has enabled mini-dictatorships across the UK, leaving parts of Britain increasingly exasperated.

Why Starmer is leaping on this idea is no mystery. It is yet another sign of a man devoid of ideas, whose poll ratings have always been reliant on the cock-ups of his opponents (of which there are many). Perhaps, having recognised that Brits are fed up of being stuck in the 70s, he has simply concluded that going forward two decades is enough to wow. “Things can only get better”, right?

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