If history teaches us anything, divide and rule is a sure strategy for southern domination – so the sooner the north east rejoins forces and gets back to the devolution negotiating table the better, says Ed Cox
News last week that the north eastern “devolution deal” had collapsed was met with plenty of shrugging and the rolling of eyeballs, but not too much surprise. Anybody who has listened to Melvyn Bragg’s excellent Radio 4 series on northern history and identity – The Matter of the North – will recognise that schemes and plans invented in the south are at best treated with suspicion and most often with complete contempt. Plus ça change.
So who or what is to blame? On the face of it the problem is a local one – another historical split has reared its head with councils north and south of the river pulling in separate directions. Who knows what parochial scores have been settled within each of the constituent councils? And who can predict what electoral advantage each council leader might have achieved through taking their stand? Only time will tell.
The four leaders who backed out claim the government’s offer wasn’t good enough. In truth it was little different from anything offered to the Tees Valley, Liverpool, Sheffield or Birmingham. But the north east wanted something else: a cast iron guarantee that government would underwrite its EU funding.
Some would say that was a bit rich coming from a region that so clearly voted to leave the EU and a bit premature given there’s still so much to be negotiated regarding Brexit. In fact Brexit served as useful cover. The deeper anxieties involved spectre of a metro mayor: a single individual presiding over the whole region. For those who have invested an entire career in local politics, the idea that some interloper from London might parachute into the most powerful position in the north east remains too much to stomach.
But to blame a lack of local leadership is only part of the story. None of this needed to happen had the government charted a more honest path. Devolution was always going to be a messy business: the principle that bespoke deals would need to be negotiated with each area according to their specific needs was absolutely the right one. But government didn’t keep its side of the bargain. In fact, as more deals were signed a pattern became clear: there was a template for deal-making which hinged on whether or not an area was prepared to have a mayor.
Osborne’s enthusiasm with the idea of metro mayors stems from the United States where modern cities sit in splendid isolation: monocentric hubs where the powers of agglomeration have a gravitational pull and celebrity politics is the biggest game in town. It was optimistic to think that the north east, with its rich history, multiple centres and diverse political identities, could ever conform in the same way.
The same is true in polycentric Yorkshire. While local government reform and better co-ordination must apply across the board, councils need to come up with more radical alternatives to the mayoral model in places where it is considered an inappropriate form of collective governance, and a new government must now broaden its parameters and live up to its principles.
For now, Sajid Javid, the new communities secretary, has taken the deal off the table but while it seems unlikely, it’s vital that it is quickly reinstated for three important reasons.
First, devolution is always a process. Did Manchester get exactly what it wanted first time around? Of course not. But it is now onto its fourth round of bargaining and each time it gets a few more pounds and a few more powers. North east leaders should have taken what was on the table as a precursor to something better. If reassurance on EU funding is really a deal-breaker then the north east is surely now on the naughty step and at the back of the queue.
Second, rather than EU funding, north eastern leaders could have been more mindful of the wider implications of Brexit. Business in the north east is nervous and not least Nissan. With Brexit foreshadowing any investment decision, putting local rivalries centre stage and looking like laggards in the wider scheme of things, is not good business sense. As a recent IPPR North report has shown, the north east retains its potential to be a vital trading hub, but business will walk away if it finds other cities more dynamic and easier to deal with.
And lastly, the north east now stands disunited. It could be that the greatest legacy of the Cameron-Osborne era was not to create one nation but to divide it. It began with the abolition of regional development agencies but now even the Local Enterprise Partnership areas that replaced them are fragmenting. What chances that Newcastle and its partners now strike a special deal north of the Tyne? If history teaches us anything, divide and rule is a sure strategy for southern domination. The sooner the north east rejoins forces and gets back to the table the better.
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