The Rising of the North?
By Duncan Whitmore
In a recent essay, we suggested that one of the possible outcomes of the COVID-19 hysteria could be a greater push towards decentralisation of the British state:
[T]he provinces of the UK are beginning to assert more independence and have tailored their own responses to the COVID-19 outbreak. Both government and the mainstream media refer increasingly to “the four nations”. It would not be a bad thing if this was to drive us towards full political independence for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, the greater emphasis on tailoring responses to specific regions – such as “local lockdowns” as opposed to the London-centric uniformity that was imposed back in March – may create a demand for more regional governance over other areas of policy, particularly when the repercussions from the lockdowns are more keenly felt.
It seems that those repercussions are now starting to bite. The introduction, this past week, of the Westminster government’s “three tier” approach to COVID restrictions has led to a considerable degree of regional backlash, particularly in Liverpool and Manchester, which either are, or could be moved into, the highest tier of lockdown. Such a category is barely different from the general lockdown back in March, resulting in the closure of pubs and bars (unless they can operate as restaurants – a seemingly inconsistent exception), travel restrictions, and no household mixing either indoors or in private gardens. One amusing, but incisive response from locals was the re-branding of a forcibly closed Liverpool pub to “The Three Bellends” in honour of Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings – a case, you might say, of a picture telling a thousand words.
No politician’s part amongst all of this has been particularly honourable. It has been pointed out that areas subject to the strictest of lockdowns have disproportionately affected Labour constituencies whereas Tory constituencies with similar infection rates have gotten off lightly. It is also not unreasonable to suggest that the government’s “consultation” with regional leaders over the restrictions is little more than a ploy allowing Westminster to call the shots unilaterally while offloading at least some of the fallout onto local politicians. If true, this is eerily reminiscent of the Poll Tax, in which the policy was set by central government but the rates payable were determined by each local authority, and so it was expected that the latter would bear the brunt of any discontent. The opposite turned out to be the case, with the resulting backlash against Margaret Thatcher’s government proving this to have been one of the iron lady’s gravest political miscalculations. It is similarly doubtful today whether Johnson will avoid long term responsibility for the COVID restrictions, particularly as local leaders are quite vocal about the fact that they have little input into the decision making process.
On the other side, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, seems to be more concerned about financial support from central government for local businesses rather than the principle of whether the restrictions should be enforced in the first place. Indeed, given that Burnham’s own Labour Party is now becoming more hard line on lockdowns than the government, we can’t expect him to fly off in the other direction. Burnham’s London counterpart, Sadiq Khan, already seems to have clicked his heels by accepting the city’s elevation to tier 2 of the restrictions. Finally, Scotland and Wales, who are adopting their own schemes, seem to be competing in a game of one-upmanship with the Johnson government, as if the harder the lockdown the more “caring” one is seen to be.
Nevertheless, whatever the cause and substance of this infighting, it could prove to be a short term boon – there is no greater threat to freedom than the unity of those who seek to destroy it, so the more time they spend squabbling with each other the less time they can spend preying on the rest of us.
However, is it possible that something more may be just over the horizon, something we alluded to in the quotation above? That, given the wide reaching effect of these restrictions, could we be seeing the dawn of local people increasing their demands for local decisions to be made by local representatives – just as “Leavers” in the EU referendum demanded that decisions concerning Britain should be made by Britons in Britain? Britain is supposed to be taking back control from the EU, so is it not high time for our regions to take back control from London? Ideally, this would result in both decision making authority and revenue raising power being dispersed to the most local level possible – something which, incidentally, the current “devolution” arrangements fail to accomplish, creating subordinate, rather than independent, administrations with cash still funnelled from Westminster. No doubt, any “withdrawal” of power from central government would be just as long, protracted and uncertain as trying to leave the EU. But just to reach that stage of negotiation would, in and of itself, be a significant step forward.
It is, of course, much too early to tell whether this is the direction in which we are heading – the Westminster government could, after all, reimpose a blanket, national COVID policy. But amongst this great power grab of 2020, green shoots are likely to be the most that we can celebrate – and this is certainly one that libertarians should keep an eye on.