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Two Cheers for the Gove-ernor

Professor Jim Gallagher

Professor Jim Gallagher

Professor Jim Gallagher is a Visiting Professor at University of Glasgow, Honorary Professor at St Andrews University and an Associate Member of Nuffield College, Oxford.

It’s good when the penny finally drops, even years late. Mr Michael Gove has at last realised the people in England want government closer to them, and not distant and ineffective in Whitehall. He wants them to elect governors. This time, he’s got at least something right. Perhaps he’s been listening to experts. 

People all across the towns and cities of northern England feel left behind and not listened to. They are right. England is the most geographically unequal and politically centralised country in Europe. They see the unacceptable economic inequality between North and South, and they distrust London government. That’s probably why many of them voted for Brexit, though their real beef was with London, not Brussels. 

It’s no accident over-centralisation in London and economic injustice in the North go together. The regions of England have had no one to stand up for them politically, as power has become more and more centralised. 

The UK’s central government and parliament is the least trusted in Europe, and it’s been getting worse. Maybe not surprising. But we know that people in England, where they have them, like metro mayors. They clearly feel that figures like Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, stand up for them, against London when need be. That’s just the same as in Scotland and Wales, where devolved government under both SNP and Labour has always been more trusted than central government. 

So Mr Gove is onto something. Shame he didn’t get onto it before he got onto Brexit.

But there’s more to this than simply electing some more mayors. We need a plan for their powers. Even more important, we need to change central government so it can work with devolved power rather than fight with it. If not, we will just see a repeat of the problems between London and devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh. And we also need a clear understanding the guarantees that the UK offers all its citizens, and how governments can cooperate, unlike they do today.

That’s where Mr Gove’s ideas fall well short. He hasn’t thought seriously about powers – notably what economic development powers will be exercised locally or regionally, and how they will be supported by central government. Levelling up won’t happen without resources. 

And he hasn’t thought through the profound changes in central government and parliament that real devolution in England implies, and that devolution in Scotland and Wales already demands.

So only two cheers for the Gove-ernor, while we wait for a real plan with the resources behind it to transform the economic and political geography of the UK. And, for viewers in Scotland, develop a UK in whose skin a devolved nation can be wholly comfortable.

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