One entirely unforeseen consequence of last year’s referendum was the brakes being put on the devolution locomotive. Despite Government protestations to the contrary, May and Hammond have shown little of the true-believer enthusiasm exhibited by Cameron and Osborne. As a result, the already tortuous process of devolution deal-making has slowed further and in some cases stopped altogether.
This election can and should be used by the main parties to revive the devolution agenda. But it needs to be an agenda refreshed for the era of Brexit. This is not just because times have changed so radically since 23rd June 2016 but also because, rethought in the right way, devolution could prove an appealing pitch to a febrile electorate.
So here, dear manifesto writer, are three ways to revive and refresh the devolution agenda in time for 8th June.
1. Show that a Brexit deal means powers flowing back to the whole of the country not just Westminster and Whitehall.The referendum result was not just a vote against Brussels it was also clearly a vote against the political class. The anger and antagonism towards the dominance of the Westminster village which had festered for so many years finally found a very loud and disruptive voice on 23rd June.
The Party which shows that it has listened to that voice could well benefit. Such a party might suggest that the Great Repeal Bill be joined by a Great Political Reset Bill devolving reclaimed EU powers over areas such as economic regeneration, agriculture, environment, financial regulation and the labour market down to local level.
Indeed, the Brexit White Paper committed the Government to “intensive discussions with the devolved administrations” about reclaimed powers. A smart Party would commit to intensive discussions with local authorities as well.
2. Make devolution about people and place not just politicians and profit.One of the major problems of the devolution agenda since 2010 was the fact that it was never really taken to heart or understood by the British people. The agenda was shaped by an enormously valuable but nevertheless generally technocratic set of arguments about economic growth and productivity. A flaw that the current Government’s reframing of devolution around an industrial strategy has replicated.
By contrast, the Brexit vote has shown how powerful is the desire of people to have an influence over the shape and the future of the place they live in. It revealed how much geography still frames people’s identities and values even in this supposedly hyper-mobile age. The parliamentary candidate who can say that a vote for them is a genuine chance for the citizens of an area to shape where they live will find a receptive audience.
But that means a devolution agenda not built around arcane deals done between Whitehall and Town Hall but around a combination of comprehensive devolution of place-shaping powers to local government and, most importantly, to local people by offering them a much more participatory and direct role in the exercise of those devolved powers. It is this second aspect – so often ignored in the devolution process – that holds the key to winning popular support and even enthusiasm for a new post-Brexit devolution agenda.
3. Loosen up and trust the people.Nothing dampened the drive for devolution like the spirit-sapping horse-trading the process promoted between central and local government and between different bits of local government itself. Of course, the Government just wanted to make sure it was devolving powers and money to institutions it could trust but the result is a byzantine and uneven set of arrangements that no-one fully understands as well as a handful of halting and failed deals.
Any party that really wants to be trusted on its commitment to give people a say over their places and to make Brexit a great political reset can’t afford to repeat such a process. They will need to be bolder: setting out clearly that powers will be devolved based not on complex institutional arrangements but on a new universally applied settlement that gives local citizens real say over how those powers are used. Then central government can take the wholly unusual step of letting the voters, rather than Whitehall mandarins, hold councils to account for their delivery.
So the opportunity is there for a party to take a somewhat tired devolution agenda and wake it up for this new Brexit era. But the manifesto munchkins will need to move fast. The election is only a few short weeks away. The opportunity to seize the people power spirit of the times again is, in all likelihood, five long years away.