The Westminster bubble must be burst
This article first appeared in the LGC daily briefing.
The centre has lost its ability to govern and radical change is needed, writes Adam Lent.
Many solid, sophisticated arguments have been made for devolution over the years. But perhaps the most solid is also the most simple: the centre has lost its ability to govern. The last few years certainly seem to be marked out in milestones of calamity: a mishandled Brexit, a chaotic pandemic response, a bond market fiasco, a public sector meltdown, and a cost of living crisis that has descended into the deepest industrial relations dispute in years.
Even good news now comes with intimations of further crisis. Inflation is due to fall like a stone according to the Bank of England’s forecast issued last week. But so fragile is the UK economy, that Threadneedle Street still raised interest rates, fearful that even the slightest return to growth could push prices back up. The prospect of a yo-yo economy now looms on the horizon, trapped between short bursts of growth and sudden price spikes that force the country back into recession.
Fortunately, there is a vast wealth of insight and talent available in local government, the wider public sector and, most importantly, within thousands of communities.
With such a record, maybe now is the time to finally admit that something fundamental has gone wrong in Westminster and Whitehall. Surely, as the crises mount up, we must accept that removing power from the failing centre and relocating it elsewhere in the system may be the only way to escape a dangerous cycle of mismanagement and decline.
Those of a partisan leaning, might argue that the problem lies with the Conservatives not with the system. But this is simplistic. We should not forget that our current problems stem from an enthusiastic bi-partisan consensus that bet the UK economy on a massively leveraged globalisation that came crashing down in 2008. A consensus, that like so many of the poor decisions of recent years, was forged in a Westminster bubble where electoral expediency, narrow ideology, career and ego have come to play a far more significant role than serious deliberation.
As the centre loses its grip, we need rapid and radical change to stave off accelerating decline.
The key to a better future cannot be found by simply changing the boss inside the bubble. The new boss will just struggle against the same deadening dysfunction as the old boss. The bubble itself needs to be burst so that new ideas, personnel and skills can be given a chance to make a better fist of things. Fortunately, there is a vast wealth of insight and talent available in local government, the wider public sector and, most importantly, within thousands of communities across the country. That energy needs to be empowered and resourced rather than marginalised and denigrated.
There does seem to be a dawning realisation of this in some parts of Westminster. Michael Gove seems to get it to some extent and Gordon Brown’s recent report on the future of the UK constitution was clearly animated by a sense that the country can’t carry on being governed in this suboptimal fashion.
But given the stakes, we need more than the odd straw in the wind. Devolution is no longer about the incremental benefits of higher productivity, better run public services or stronger regional growth. As the centre loses its grip, we need rapid and radical change to stave off accelerating decline.
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