Boris Johnson might not like devolution but it’s vital for his levelling up plan

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director, Campaigns and Scotland

Posted on the 27th November 2020

This article was originally published on

You could dismiss the comments as classic Boris Johnson bluster. But they vocalise what the views of too many in Westminster when it comes to the devolved nations.

I’m referring of course to the Prime Minister, who has come under fire for reportedly telling a virtual meeting of Conservative MPs that devolution had been a “disaster” in Scotland.

While No 10 has since rowed back on the comments – with Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick telling the BBC that Mr Johnson has “always supported devolution” – the revelation offers an interesting insight to the Prime Minister’s views on moving power away from London.

The PM’s comments represent a total failure of imagination when it comes to devolution and the benefits of moving decision-making power closer to ordinary people. This is the fundamental problem of government today: seeing devolution as a tool for your party’s own means rather than an end in itself.

Nearly every developed democracy has greater devolution than the UK. Across Europe, decisions about people’s everyday lives are taken much closer to the communities they live in and powers are regularly handed to regional, local and even community levels in a way that seems alien to many people following our centralised politics. In England, the approach to devolution has been almost solely pitched around the economic affect – rather than giving people a say over how their communities are run.

But even though our devolution settlement is weak – and its roll out has been piecemeal – public support for devolution in the UK remains high. Combined support for independence or strong devolution is at over 80 per cent in Scotland, according to the British Social Attitudes survey.

It’s worth noting trust during the pandemic has been far higher for Wales‘ and Scotland’s administrations than for the UK government. People have seen the benefits of taking decisions locally and want a greater stake in how they’re governed – whether in a pandemic or not.

The Prime Minister can stand like King Cnut against the tide if he wants, but the UK’s democratic future depends on decentralisation, not command and control from London. While he may have made the comments to demonstrate his commitment to the union at a time when support for independence in Scotland is at an all-time high, the effect north of the border may prove to be the opposite.

People are not going to give up on devolution if it is taken away.

We’ve seen time and time again how hoarding power at the centre holds back democracy. You don’t have to look far to see how the idea that you can determine everything from Whitehall and impose a one-size-fits-all solution to social and economic problems falls short.

Instead of dismissing the developments of devolution north of the border the Prime Minister should be exploring new ways to give power to local communities – something that needs to form the centre of his government’s levelling up agenda.

We do need to explore a new model for the UK, away from patchwork approach to devolution, and instead enshrining a right to the representation communities actually want. Just 16 percent of the public believe politics is working well in the UK – and only two percent feel they have a significant influence over decision-making, according to BMG polling for the Electoral Reform Society last December.

Changing that can’t be done by diktat, handed down like a gift from central government. Instead we need a national conversation on how to move power away from Westminster and put it in the hands of voters.

There are changes we know will make a difference: pluralistic voting system, a fairly elected Senate of the Nations and Regions, and clear principles in favour of local power should all be on the Government’s agenda if it is to meet the challenges we face as a country.

Whatever path we choose, indirect threats to devolution like this must be strongly challenged for the ‘we know best’ mentality they reveal.

Decisions over reshaping our democracy can’t be made in smoke-filled zooms: the public must have a real stake (citizens’ assemblies offer a useful model for how to do this).  As we saw with the Brexit referendum when the UK voted to ‘take back control’ – people too often feel powerless over the decisions taken that affect their everyday lives.

Addressing the growing distance between people and power will be one of the big battles governments face over the next decade. Sadly, the PM’s comments seemed to reflect that politicians are scared by the change.

But all the shifting currents in society – from technology to social change – are driving us to more ‘distributed’ power. The answer lies in more grassroots democracy, not less.

The process might be messy in the meantime, but we need to figure it out. Pulling back power to the centre is simply not an option, however much politicians might like it to be.

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