Article Published February 26th, 2021
by John Stevens and Dr Andrew Blick
John Stevens is the Chairman of the Federal Trust. He is a former MEP (1989 – 1999).
Dr Andrew Blick is Head of the Department of Political Economy and Reader in Politics and Contemporary History at King’s College London. He is the Director of the Centre for British Politics and Government and the Director of History & Policy.
Amongst the more curious consequences of Brexit, given that it was, in part at least, inspired by a rejection of a federal destiny for the European Union, is the revival of advocacy for precisely such a structure for the British Union. This has been more evident on the Left than on the Right. Certainly Sir Keir Starmer’s support has been widely interpreted as being so far his most radical policy initiative. But it has extended even into the hallowed high Tory counsels of Lord Salisbury’s Constitution Reform Group.
The post-Brexit rise of Scottish, and now also Welsh nationalism, obviously represents a serious challenge for the Labour Party, whose losses in its erstwhile northern English heartlands at the last election have led to existential doubts about its capacity ever again to secure power at Westminster without the intrinsically anti-Conservative sentiments Celtic exceptionalism inspires. And Brexit has entrenched the intrinsically pro-Conservative sentiments English exceptionalism inspires, making a Labour majority in England alone seemingly a remote prospect. But it also obviously represents a serious challenge to the Conservatives. Scotland’s leaving the British and joining the European Union would not simply threaten the Monarchy, the nuclear deterrent force and the image of England in the world. It would make it very difficult to declare Brexit as anything other than a national fiasco. And Brexit is all that gives contemporary Conservatism any sort of distinctive colour and coherence.
Some form of federalisation of the United Kingdom is thus increasingly considered essential for its preservation. But this is equally widely recognised only to have meaning if England itself is federalised. So there are two issues: can English exceptionalism be persuaded to tolerate sub-division into significant regional entities, in preference to the greater national power afforded by Westminster centralism, and if so, will that persuade Celtic exceptionalism to tolerate remaining in the UK in preference to the greater national power afforded by membership as an independent state of the European Union? London’s place in the first of these issues is clearly central. Though the devolution it has been granted by having a directly-elected Mayor and an Assembly placed above the boroughs for several key functions, notably policing and transport, is relatively modest, even when compared to the powers granted to the Scottish Parliament, it nevertheless represents the only significant proto-federal English component of the UK polity. Given this, and the saliency of the integrity of the UK in this May’s Scottish elections, it is perhaps surprising that in the simultaneous London elections, none of the main contesting parties is proposing any increase in the powers of the Mayor and Assembly, let alone to a level equal to that already granted to the Parliament in Edinburgh.
Why might this be? Possibly because much of the present talk of UK federalism is simply an attempt to reverse the rise of Scottish nationalism. Another referendum on independence, if it still delivered another vote in favour of the Union, might create the circumstances in which Scots would settle for a federal UK, but it might equally leave a continued state of resentment that merely looked to yet another opportunity to break with England. For this and other reasons, the present British Government has already declared it will strenuously oppose granting such a referendum, asserting that the 2014 vote was “for a generation”. Or perhaps the absence of debate on new powers for London is because it is widely assumed that any sentiment of a distinctive London identity will never reach the stage at which powers comparable to those granted to the Scottish Parliament would be needed to accommodate it?
Both these explanations are very plausible. Brexit has changed much. As to the former, it has provided the most dramatic demonstration of England’s domination of Scotland’s fate. It was won by arguments which are effectively the same as those now deployed by the Scottish National Party for independence from England. And it must be added, granting another referendum on Scottish independence in any near future would undermine the solidity of the referendum which chose Brexit in 2016. As to the latter, it has led to a significant number of EU citizens leaving London, perhaps never to return. But estimating the impact an independent Scotland in the EU, if that were to come about, might have upon any sentiment of a distinctive London identity is very difficult. Combined with the severely negative impact upon London of Brexit, in financial services, and in the creative and cultural industries, and its vulnerability to the changes to big cities generally which the COVID crisis could entail, Scottish independence might prove the catalyst that created serious demands for a devolution of powers consistent with a fully federal England. Such is London’s economic, cultural and political weight, these could scarcely be resisted for long. So London could become the decisive driver creating a fully federal England.
But perhaps these pressures might take London further, to the point where the metropolis’ antipathy and resentment towards the rest of England, which imposed Brexit upon it, could only be assuaged by a return of the whole country to the EU? And what course might London take if such a return were refused by the rest of England? All this constitutes an additional source of tension to the resentment of the rest of England towards London which was an important component of the vote for Brexit. A dangerous gap of future fundamental interest and strategy, not merely of prosperity and culture. It is the task of serious politicians to think how this gap can be bridged. In the following essay, Dr. Andrew Blick has some interesting and constructive ideas about how to bring this about. Leavers, in the 2016 referendum campaign, often portrayed the Remain convictions of London as proof it was really a foreign country. Incredible though it would have seemed before 2016, it is now even possible to imagine, if only in this, that they could be proved right.
Perceptions of London
The image of an overprivileged, overpowerful London is a potent one in United Kingdom (UK) political discourse. It has wide appeal as a rhetorical device. Within England, for instance, on the left, Labour metro-mayors outside London can present themselves as seeking more equitable treatment from and with the dominant city. Conservatives, on the other hand, with their newly-found support base in the wake of the 2019 General Election, can depict themselves as seeking to ‘level up’ – that is elevate less prosperous and fortunate territories onto the same plane as London. Beyond England, for example in Scotland, reference to London, as an English conurbation, can imply the site of what, for many, is an unwanted and even illegitimate constitutional authority and centre of the Union. Advocates of a UK federation, including myself, have held that one of the arguments in favour of the introduction of such a system is that it would enable a dispersal of some of the functions and activities that are presently, to destabilising effect, concentrated in London. In countries such as the US and Germany, financial, commercial, political, and cultural power is more territorially dispersed, rather than being focused on a single point. In this sense, arguments for a federal UK of this type treat London as possessing an unhealthy monopoly, the ending of which might be to the general good.
All of these accounts, though containing many differences of outlook and objective, tend to present London as in a position of privilege, at the expense of other parts of the UK. They have a degree of justification. The UK, for instance, remains a centralised state with key political, legal and constitutional powers and institutions based in one place. London is a UK and world centre for commercial and financial activity and is a location of immense wealth. That – even in a post-devolution UK – it might be perceived as favoured, possibly to the detriment of other parts of England and the UK, is understandable. But a parallel perspective is possible: one that treats London less a beneficiary of the UK political system than might be imagined, and as in some senses on the receiving end of its problematic anomalies and distortions.
The case for autonomy
The concept of London as it appears in the scenarios discussed above often in fact refers to a set of institutions that are located in the city, but do not necessarily reflect the inclinations or perceived interests of the bulk of those living in the conurbation. The borough of Tower Hamlets, for instance, suffers from considerable socio-economic deprivation, yet is proximate to a conduit for financial transactions of vast scale. In some analysis, the economic system with which the City of London is associated contributes to the very inequality that this consideration of its immediate locale makes so stark. In this sense there are two Londons; one of which does not benefit from the privileges of the other.
The political aspect of this paradox is of particular importance for present discussions. A common complaint among advocates of devolution and of independence for Wales and Scotland is that these nations are frequently governed at UK level by groups that do not reflect the election results in these particular territories; and that pursue courses of action detrimental to them. The term ‘London’ might be used in such depictions of unwanted and malign administrations. But similar complaints might be made on behalf of this very urban centre.
London, overall, is a Labour-inclined territory (though it played a crucial part in advancing the career of the present Prime Minister). It is the case that it prospered economically to a greater extent than other parts of the UK during the 1979-1997 period of Conservative government. The Prime Minister for the first eleven years of this era represented a London constituency. But, in 1986 this administration abolished the Greater London Council (GLC), leaving it without its own single elected form of government, restored in the form of the Greater London Authority in 2000. The last time that the ‘winning’ party in London at a General Election also went on to form the UK government was in 2005.
In 2016, just under 60 per cent of those who voted in London supported ‘remain’ at the European Union referendum of 23 June. London (like Scotland and Northern Ireland) can therefore be said to have had Brexit forced on it against its will. Yet the consequences of this course of action for London are disproportionately large. Its economy (which is, for better or worse, of importance to the prosperity of the entire UK) was dependent to a significant extent upon the free movement of people, capital, goods and services that the European Single Market provided. The votes of the 2,263,519 people in London who supported remain were treated as irrelevant. Furthermore, EU citizens residing in London at the time of referendum were excluded even from taking part, because of the franchise employed (which largely, though not entirely, followed that used for General Elections. The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum included non-UK as well as UK EU citizens, as did European and local elections). As a consequence of Brexit, it is no longer, when living in London, possible to enjoy the rights of EU citizenship, whether as a UK or other national. Furthermore, London no longer takes part in the election of members of the European Parliament. Yet the activities of the European Parliament are likely still to have significant implications for London, perhaps more than many other parts of the UK. A European democratic deficit has therefore opened up. The two General Elections since this referendum have seen further differentiation between the London and UK outcomes. In 2017, over half of votes cast in London were for Labour, and the party increased its majority of seats won in the city. But the Conservatives retained power (albeit with a minority in the House of Commons). In 2019, there was a swing away from Labour in London. But unlike in some other parts of the country, it was towards parties that were more clearly opposed to Brexit, in particular the Liberal Democrats, rather than to the Conservative or Brexit Party.
A model for autonomy
Resentment regarding such mismatches between the balance of opinion in a particular territory and the administrations and policies to which it became subject have been a major source of support for greater autonomy and even independence in Wales and Scotland. They are a reason that both nations now have full devolution, with directly elected parliaments, tax-raising powers, and executives. These systems have come under pressure in the Brexit era (and it is not certain that all the territories involved will, over coming years and decades, remain part of the UK at all). But they provide far more extensive self-government to the areas involved than anything on offer in England, including the GLA.
London devolution was part of an early wave of this form of government, introduced by the Labour government that first took office in 1997 (though there had been an earlier system of devolution in Northern Ireland). It took place broadly in parallel to initiatives for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. All four received prior approval in referendums held in the territories concerned. In this sense they all possess a degree of political entrenchment. The initial Labour plan was eventually to introduce devolution across the whole of England, thereby covering the entirety of the UK. This process stalled following the rejection of a proposed North East Assembly in 2004. In the mid-2010s, the coalition and then Conservative governments returned to the idea of English devolution, generally entailing the transfer of powers to groups of local authorities and the introduction of directly elected mayors. London devolution therefore has origins as part of a subsequently abandoned model. This model was returned to in a different form, but remains incomplete. At present, the GLA – composed principally of a directly elected Mayor and Assembly which performs only a relatively weak oversight role – has powers in the following areas:
- Economic development;
- Fire services;
From the outset, London devolution was the most modest of the four devolution systems brought into being under Labour. It remains so, and the gap between it and these others has widened. There have been certain increases in its authority over time, notably in 2007 and 2011. Boris Johnson, a former Mayor of London for whom this office was a staging post on the path to a higher ambition, seems disinclined to bolster the powers available to his successors at devolved level. But even among those who advocate expansions in the powers of the GLA, their proposals – though worthy – tend to be notable mostly for the extent of their adherence to existing paradigms, to the exclusion of any serious ambition. They tend to focus on such matters as limited expansions in the ability to vary certain local taxes. They do not involve the transformation of London governance into an autonomous, self-financing, primary law making entity, able fully to address the diverse needs of the territory, such as will be explored in the rest of this chapter.
Some might hold that London should not be directly compared to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the first two of which are nations, and the third of which is often regarded as a special case. Yet, though not a nation, London has a history of comparable length to that of these units. It is a geographically, culturally and politically distinct entity, with global visibility. Moreover, to employ international comparisons, there are clear examples of the inclusion of cities or city regions as states within federal systems: for instance – in Germany – Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg. In population terms, London is larger than any of the other devolved territories; as it is by various measures of economic output.
For these reasons, there is political cause for and potential credibility to a claim that London be provided with devolution on a scale comparable to that available at its most extensive in the UK. There seem no defensible grounds for arguing that the people of London can be trusted with self-government any less than those in any other part of the UK. The pertinent model in this case is Scotland, to which the most substantial powers have been transferred. What would be the implications of the application of the Scottish model to London? The following is an initial discussion of prospects, on which more detailed work, this author suggests, would be a useful exercise.
The powers London could expect to obtain (or retain) would fall in areas including:
- Health and social services;
- Fiscal power including income tax bands; air Passenger Duty; and the assignment of a proportion of VAT levied.
- Local government;
- Law and order;
- Education and training;
- Economic development;
Some of the devolved powers, for instance for agriculture, would be of less relative significance than in Scotland, though no doubt there would be decisions to be made and policies to be applied over matters such as standards. Areas including health and education would be immense responsibilities, given the concentration, for instance, of hospitals and higher education institutions in London. The ‘reserved powers’ model envisaged here is significant. It means that any sphere of activity not expressly retained at the centre is by implication devolved. This arrangement creates potential for creative initiatives, particularly when coupled with the availability of resources. I use the term resources in a broad sense. London has many, to which an autonomous London government would have access. Some are ‘soft’, resting, for instance, on the status of London as a globally recognised entity. Others involve infrastructure such as public buildings. This discussion leads inevitably to money, and the tax-raising powers that would be transferred to London. Because of the size and nature of the London economy, the sums to which an autonomous London as envisaged here would potentially have access would be far greater than those available to the Scottish Parliament (or its Welsh or Northern Ireland counterparts); providing significant scope for a variety of policy initiatives across the different spheres of operation.
In some senses, devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been projects made possible by subsidy through revenue transfer. An autonomous London could, if given the power to do so, be in a better position to support itself. Potentially it could use taxation not only as a means of raising revenue, but of economic management. There would probably be complex implications for matters such as the mechanism for the redistribution of funds between parts of the UK. The ‘Barnett formula’ – long regarded as problematically anomalous – might require replacement by a needs-based mechanism. I recognise that here I engage with matters of utmost sensitivity, concerning what London can properly regard as its own resources and with the recognition that, if the UK is to function as a state, then fiscal transfers are needed to underpin it. However, as I have already noted, there are significant and stubborn inequities within London, partly of a territorial nature, the resolution of which might be better addressed through enhanced autonomy. Moreover, solidarity has to involve both obligations and rights for all involved. If a polity is to be regarded as a group enterprise, in which resources are to some extent shared, this expectation should presumably be accompanied by other principles – for instance, that a major break with existing political arrangements should take place preferably with a broad supportive consensus. A reason that the case for an autonomous London might now gain in force is that Brexit was imposed on the whole UK on the basis of a bare 51.89 per cent majority among those who were allowed to vote and did so (17.4 million in a country with around 65 million inhabitants). If, as seems likely, Brexit produces economic downsides rather than the swift gains its advocates projected, a degree of territorially-linked resentment might generate in London. Its inhabitants could feel disposed to question a form of solidarity that entails it having to suffer the negative consequences of an outcome (and succession of governments) it voted against. Resentment could intensify if they felt that London is being called upon to provide subsidies that will help mitigate this impact in parts of the country that produced ‘leave’ majorities and therefore invited such an outcome for themselves, as well as imposing it upon areas where it was not supported.
This autonomy proposal has constitutional implications. The GLA would become a Parliament, with primary law-making and extensive tax-raising powers. It might need more members to share the burden of increasing responsibility. The relationship between it and the Mayor – and the nature of the executive office of Mayor itself – would need careful reassessment. So would the balance of power between the Assembly and the Boroughs, and the way in which existing and newly-acquired authorities were shared between them. Having established the principle that it was entitled to broadly equivalent powers to Scotland, London could then instigate a convention, potentially incorporating members of the public along with politicians and experts, to consider for itself how it should manage these new responsibilities. It would address matters including structures, procedures, and election arrangements. Such an exercise could provide an important moment for London as a self-aware, self-governing polity, preparing it for the autonomy to come. In my view, no referendum in addition to that already held in 1998 would be required, since there is now ample precedent for the introduction or extension of devolution taking place without such votes taking place.
To consider the wider UK constitutional picture, the possibility of London autonomy as discussed in this paper would lessen the disparity between London devolution and that elsewhere. It might also trigger or form part of a new wave of English devolution, leading the UK towards a more clearly federal system, in which equivalents to states covered the entirety of the country. While the UK remained a single country, all of these sub-units would need to be contained within a unified internal market, already a subject of contention, however it might be realised. Such developments might also take place in the possible context of one or more parts of the UK leaving or preparing to do so.
A London autonomy movement might on the surface appear to be a regressive project. It could seem likely to acquire an aura similar to that surrounding northern separatism in Italy: a drive by an already advantaged territory to maximise its privileges and leave others to their own more meagre devices. But the project I have sketched here in fact involves the people of London asserting for themselves the same degree of freedom from excessively centralised UK government that has driven devolution elsewhere in the UK. Having achieved it, it will become possible for London begin to address for itself long term social inequalities within the city; and to devise meaningful responses of its own to the aftermaths of the pandemic and Brexit. Other parts of England could follow a similar path, either as part of a coordinated movement or in response to a change for London.
Yet there will be significant limits to what can be achieved while the UK remains outside the EU. No amount of autonomy can provide a substitute to the four freedoms, which proved so beneficial to London. A demand for the same post-Brexit arrangement as that introduced for Northern Ireland, as a means of maximising London alignment with the EU, could have rhetorical appeal. But given the difficulties associated with it even in the territory for which it was designed, there may be practical obstacles to the application of this arrangement to London – as well as there being various political obstacles to overcome at the UK and EU ends. Nonetheless, the development of an autonomous London could be an important step towards a more wide-ranging and radical reconfiguration of the governance of the British Isles. Modes of decision making might need more fully to recognise the need for consent from the different territories; and move away from the currently entrenched winner-takes-all approach to politics. Some form of federal council, incorporating London and the other devolved systems, might be appropriate. The reductive interpretation of sovereignty employed by the present UK government might well be dispensed with also. At some point the UK could find itself compelled to take important decisions not only about its relationship with or membership of the EU; but also about whether it continues as a single state, perhaps on a model of confederacy or federacy, or if its different components, including London, follow their own paths. In this regard the UK could become a pioneer of new forms of political organisation, just as it once helped set the intellectual agenda for federalism and European integration.