Of Covid-19’s many legacies, among the least discussed but most important is the realisation that the British state is dysfunctional and our constitution a mess. The way we are governed is mired in confusion caused by a lack of clarity about where power really lies.
If you live in Scotland, whom do you hold responsible for the response to the pandemic? The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, or the First Minister of Scotland? If you live in London, who should decide how social distancing is applied on trains and buses? Ministers or the Mayor? In Newcastle you might wonder why London’s transport system was bailed out before your own. In the West Midlands, you might ask why Manchester controls health and social care spending but you do not. In Derbyshire, you might ask to whom your eccentric police force is accountable.
Even in Whitehall, confusion reigns. When the PM made his last speech to the nation – to the whole of the UK, that is – he described his plan to take us out of the lockdown. But he has no powers over schools outside England, and no say in the health systems of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As soon as his speech ended, the leaders of the devolved governments rejected his plan, and insisted their lockdowns would continue.
While many commentators south of the border marvel at Nicola Sturgeon’s knack for embarrassing the Cabinet, Scotland’s First Minister is using the politics of devolution to avoid scrutiny for her own decisions. Opposition parties point out that Scotland has hired not one Covid-19 contact tracer, it suffers a care homes death-rate worse than in England, and its ministers stand accused of covering up one of Scotland’s earliest outbreaks.
In England, a series of rows have erupted about council budgets, the reopening of schools, and the speed with which we come out of the lockdown. Labour councils complain that the Government’s Covid-19 grant funding formula has been revised to their detriment; Conservative politicians explain that poorer, northern councils still get more than those in the south. Liverpool’s mayor says he wants to keep his schools open. Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, says because the virus reproduction rate is higher in the north, the lockdown needs to go on.
Quite apart from the rights and wrongs of different pandemic policies, we are witnessing, in high-definition picture with cinematic soundbar, the chaotic nature of the modern British state. At almost every level, accountability and responsibility – particularly budgetary responsibility – are misaligned. As a result we have public services led by officials accountable to nobody, local government that cannot govern, mayors with so few powers that their time is spent lobbying ministers, and devolved governments that blame policy failures on England.
And what about England? Last week, MPs on the education committee grilled the Department for Education’s chief scientific adviser about the decision to reopen schools in England. Chief among his tormentors was Carol Monaghan, the MP for Glasgow North West and the Scottish Nationalists’ education spokesman. Westminster has no say whatsoever about schools in Scotland, yet here was an MP from a Scottish constituency scrutinising education in England. It was another reminder of the neglect of the government of England.
And that neglect shows. More than a quarter of English adults have low basic skills. Regional productivity is poor, and there is severe income inequality between and within regions. In London, average wages are higher than anywhere else, and more than forty per cent higher than in the North East. This is compounded by lopsided public investment. London gets more government spending per head than anywhere else, including a third of English transport spending.
Yet who governs England? MPs from Scottish and Welsh constituencies can vote on matters affecting England – like the health system – while English MPs have no say on the same matters in Scotland and Wales. It takes more votes to elect MPs in England than in Scotland and Wales, where constituencies are smaller. And the Barnett Formula, the means by which we determine public spending across the UK, is skewed against England.In Scotland, spending per person on services is twenty per cent higher.
The contrast between Germany’s experience of the pandemic and ours is striking. In Germany, there is clarity about the division of responsibilities between federal and state governments. Its health system is decentralised. In each of its Länder there is a strong social partnership between government, business and society. In the UK, our unaccountable and over-centralised health system has struggled to process diagnostics tests and procure protective equipment. Instead of working together, political leaders from the devolved governments and regions have played the blame game.
If we want to learn from the pandemic we need to decentralise the state. But we need to do so not in the haphazard fashion of the last two decades or so. We need a new and carefully structured constitutional settlement.
We must move to a fully federal model, with an English government and parliament, and more powers for the four nations. Within England we need to decentralise more, giving more responsibilities to the metro-mayors and local councils. We need a greater share of taxes raised at a local level. And we need public services to be run in line with local needs and by leaders closer to the frontline.
Such changes would be nothing short of a revolution. Politicians would be giving power away, and recasting, perhaps, their personal ambitions. Whitehall, and the Treasury in particular, would be surrendering control. And we would all need to learn to live with a diversity of policies and outcomes: postcode lotteries and the occasional bold experiment that fails. But that same diversity would bring strength: greater resilience, and in place of suspicion and fear, a system capable – in emergencies like this – of pulling in the same direction.