In a modern democracy, using raw power to frustrate one’s opponents is neither democratic nor sensible. If demands are ignored, pressure will build up and eventually undermine political legitimacy. Boris Johnson thinks his Commons majority, elected on a first-past-the-post basis, can defy such logic. This is a reckless strategy. Rather than consider how the country ought to be governed when nationalism gains popularity, Mr Johnson aims to harness an English version of it in May’s “Super Thursday” elections. These polls will be therefore mostly about tactical advances, which give no answer to the question of what sort of modern-day state the UK should be.
At the heart of much of the debate today is that within England the centre thinks of itself as unambiguously in charge. English councils are “creatures of statute”. Their powers can be altered or abolished by central government. But outside England there are the competing understandings of what constrains the UK executive. These have been heightened by rising nationalist sentiment in England, Wales and Scotland.
Separatism dodges crucial questions about the nature of the future relationship between states. Such evasions led to Mr Johnson, riding the tiger of English nationalism, to draw a border down the Irish Sea when he struck a Brexit deal. That decision contributed to nights of rioting in Northern Ireland and is one that, apparently, the prime minister feels unable to revisit – for fear, perhaps, of being unmasked as a dissembler.
The centre once trod carefully outside of England, wary of splitting peoples into nationalists and unionists. History is littered with past mistakes. Mr Johnson seems wont to repeat them. Last year, James Mitchell of the University of Edinburgh wrote that to stop a hostile Westminster abolishing or removing powers from Holyrood against the wishes of the Scottish public would require a “major overhaul of the entire [UK] constitution including a written and justiciable constitution”. Given how top-heavy Britain is, such a document would be welcome. But there is no sign of one emerging.
Post-Covid, the British state must begin a constitutional journey. A federal Britain, one in which each part of the state is treated in the same or at least a broadly similar way, is an appealing destination. But there is considerable work required to convince the publics in each part of the UK of the merits of this case and to produce a scheme that would garner wide support. These tasks must be set against a view in parts of the Tory party that devolution is a political hiccup that will disappear if one takes a deep breath and pretends it’s not there.
Mr Johnson does not want to hand over more power to governments that may end up controlled by his opponents. Tony Travers of the London School of Economics noted that promises that communities would be able to “take back more control” were belied during the pandemic by centralised interventions in England, often with poor outcomes. A plan for devolving power to England’s cities and regions, expected last September, has yet to see the light of day. Rather than giving English local government more control over budgets, the Treasury offers pots of cash that end up disproportionately in Tory marginal seats.
There are few states in Europe today with the same boundaries that they had a century ago. The current borders of the UK are only a century old. Keeping them intact requires that power is diffused and not concentrated.
A pro-independence majority in Edinburgh and a breakthrough by Plaid Cymru ought to cause reflection throughout a disunited kingdom. Legislatures in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast make the case for English assemblies that are more regional and less national in character. No 10 must come to terms with devolution, and do so thoroughly.