Michael Gove’s “levelling up” White Paper is driven by brute politics: his party desperately wants to keep the “red wall” seats in the north of England it gained in Brexit’s aftermath, by addressing their feelings of being economically left behind and politically ignored.
So it acknowledges two closely connected realities the government has hitherto preferred to deny.
First, the deep economic inequalities that split England. We’ve become so used to the North South divide, we can fail to see how shocking it is. Britain is the most economically unbalanced country in the developed world. The gap between London and the North is now bigger than between the former communist East of Germany and the West. This affects everything from life expectancy to income and education.
Second, the gross over-centralisation of England’s government. No other developed country concentrates so much power at the centre. Local government has been gutted of resources and influence, and the regional tier of government, so important in many European states, is virtually absent. Only Metro Mayors try to fill this important gap.
So Mr Gove’s ambitions to close gaps in health, income, educational attainment, investment etc, and to promote decentralisation in England, will be welcomed by many.
Whether his plans address them is different matter. The dead hand of the Treasury and Whitehall is all over them. The resources proposed are an order of magnitude less than needed. As German experience shows, transforming regional economies requires decades of very large investment. And instead of a radical programme to empower metro mayors as devolution empowers Wales or Scotland, we see the usual list of bids to and permissions from government departments.
What about Scotland? Extra investment in improving Glasgow’s productivity can only be welcomed, though it would be better if the governments cooperated on it rather than competed. It’s not a popularity contest, though the Scottish government should apply the Gove analysis to their own excessive centralisation. Longer term, a more prosperous, economically balanced England can only be good for Scotland. So will a more decentralised one. But these are only the first faltering steps to both.
This article was also featured in The Times Scotland.