This Ditchley Foundation conference will explore what more can and should be done to renew the British people’s sense of democratic agency and economic opportunity across all parts of the country. Although this conference will focus on the UK, we aim to benefit from international examples and dialogue on how other countries manage the inevitable tensions between government and regional identity and to offer in return insights and lessons from the British experience to others.
The campaign for the UK to leave the European Union coined the powerful slogan, “Take Back Control”. Whether or not leaving the EU was the way to achieve this was bitterly debated over four years. Opinion might remain split on Brexit, but most people would acknowledge that “take back control” struck a chord, capturing a sense of a loss of agency over political decisions and a lack of clarity over who controls what in the UK.
British democracy is very much alive and well and the Brexit debate arguably re-ignited a degree of popular interest and passion that had been missing. The pandemic in turn has remade the case for government. But there is a strong and widespread sense that collectively the different layers of democracy – parish, local and regional councils, police commissioners, metro mayors and, at the top level, devolved home nation governments, might work well at different levels in different places at different times but do not cohere to give citizens a sense of who does what and therefore how to hold leadership to account.
For all of the local government innovations, the UK remains a highly centralised country and much more centralised in England, perhaps, than it used to be. Meanwhile, Westminster MPs hold constituency surgeries but know that the route to advancement is not to be a regional representative. MPs have very little say over what happens locally. A first past the post system means little influence for political minorities other than in marginal constituencies but no one has detected any sudden renewed enthusiasm for proportional representation. The ‘unwritten’ British constitution has many strengths but what we have today is a mélange of experiments of mixed success that were designed to fix a sense of loss of local empowerment but have not sufficiently or coherently done so.
Where do we go from here constitutionally and on the reform of local government? How should money be raised for local services – centrally or locally? What would be a better balance of spending authority between local authorities at different levels and central government? How far do we need to decentralise and devolve? What is the best structure for delivering high quality government services? Is there a need for parallel mechanisms for democracy and consultation – citizens assemblies, consultation groups etc. or should we be focused on just making politics and government work better? What are the best solutions? What is possible politically? What can technology do to help?
To make any sense, this discussion has to be combined with one on identity. It is a truism that modern technology has connected the world. We – the global population - now know more about each other and see more of each other than ever before. At the same time, most people’s lives, daily concerns and therefore politics, remain intensely local. We are still rooted in where we grew up and we still have our tribal allegiances to teams, parties and communities. It is no wonder that in this mix there is a constant questioning and focusing on identity. Brexit was about identity as much as control – who are we and who do we want to be? At the home nation level, the debate is Scottish or Welsh or Irish or British? In England (and indeed in Scotland and Wales), the discussion has yet more geographical layers – English or British to a degree but also northern or southern, county or town, London or everywhere else. Geographical identity is cut with other forms of belonging in a multicultural and increasingly diverse society, such as ethnic identity and sexual identity. Then there are subtler but still real forms of modern tribe: metropolitan or provincial, global nomad or local, eco-concerned or car enthusiast. There’s a richness in the diversity but it makes devising effective representation and consensus complicated.
More shocks are coming. HM the Queen has been a constant symbol of national identify for the UK for almost seventy years, spanning the end of Empire to Brexit. Her eventual passing will not only be a moment of great national sadness but also perhaps a new stage in the move from subject to citizen. How is personal and political identity in the UK evolving and what does it mean for giving people a sense of agency and control as their democratic right? What parts of our identities have a right to be represented? The way we do this at present is geography for politics and pressure groups and campaigns for other aspects of ourselves. How might this evolve?
There are other ways we are entering into a new world. The pandemic has further accelerated the impact of technology but also brought new opportunities (as well as frustrations) for new ways to combine life at work and home. There might be a chance to create a more distributed model for the economy. At the same time, modern industries bring strong centralising and clustering effects on a global scale and automation and AI are going, in due course, to reshape the nature of work for many people and the nature and timing of education. If we can’t build new industries across the country, there will be fewer tax revenues for government to collect, whether local or national.
What is the right role for local and national government in addressing these global trends in order to ‘build back better’ or level up across the country? To what extent can government at all levels influence the market? What is the role for industrial strategy and incentives? What is the role for the private sector? Can and should companies themselves aim to distribute operations across the UK? Could they be incentivised to do so? What can other national and local institutions, for example the BBC, the NHS and schools and universities do to bolster local global competitiveness in both existing and new industries? How can we combine innovation with respect and promotion of place and local identity? Given a sufficient sense of agency and control, could and should communities opt to be centres of immigration for global talent, welcoming new people for the opportunities and skills they bring?
At first blush, it may appear that this is not one conference but three, but the fact is that effective democratic representation cannot be separated from identity on the one hand and the economy on the other: representation is important because it acknowledges identity and addresses the economy that shapes lives at the local level.